ASU Studies Illegally Trafficked Bugs to Help Law Enforcement Catch Global Criminals

February 22, 2024
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Surely, you’ve heard of the elephant tusk trade? Or rare jaguar skin that’s sold over the black market but have you ever heard of illegal bugs? These distinctive, contraband critters do exist, and they are trafficked illegally into the U.S. every year. 

More than 3,000 exotic insects are being studied at ASU’s West Valley campus in the Forensic Entomology and Wildlife Laboratory. Students in the School of Interdisciplinary Forensics are examining the bugs and cataloging them in an effort to understand their origin and how they got into the country. Insects are among the most illegally smuggled species.

In the illegal bug trade butterflies can fetch up to as much as $100,000. Assistant Professor Lauren Weidner says the study may also help federal agents, investigators and attorneys in the possible convictions of illegal bug traffickers. She is available for interviews and can share more about her study and the unusual practice of insect trafficking. 
Media contact: Veronica Sanchez, ASU media relations director, [email protected], 602-359-1138.

  1. Why did you want to bring the collection to ASU? 
    I learned about these insects when I was receiving a tour of the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory up in Ashland Oregon when I attended the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (SWFS) conference last fall. When I was speaking with the collections manager, I asked what they do with them he said they sit in storage. There isn’t much information on what insects are being illegally transported and it piqued my interest. I thought they could be a great addition for students to work with and for our insect museum to display.  After speaking with him, he said he would be happy to donate them to my lab.
  2. I know you are still sorting through them, but is there one that is the most interesting to you? 
    Honestly, most of them are simply stunning. Even though I’ve been working with insects for over a decade, these are not the type of insects I’m used to seeing. I don’t think I could choose one over the others just yet.
  3. Is there a specific bug in the collection that is most relevant to crime/forensics? 
    Most of the time when I’m working with insects in a forensic setting, they are associated with remains and are helping to provide information to law enforcement. But with these, they are the victim of a crime. Most people think of large mammals when they think of wildlife crimes, I’m hoping to change people’s perspective and get them thinking about insects in that sense.
  4. Could you provide a hypothetical example of how your upcoming work with the bugs could help forensic professionals in the field? 
    The goal of my research with these insects is two-fold. First, to understand which insects we are seeing being trafficked into the United States and second, to create information sheets about each of these insects that we hope can be used to increase awareness about insect trafficking and provide information for agents and attorneys in the field.

 This story from ASU News: https://news.asu.edu/20240119-science-and-technology-black-market-bugs-find-home-asus-forensics-school

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