Into the Wild: Translating DNA-Based Human Identification Techniques to a Wildlife Attack

Maureen Hickman of Western Carolina University describes how researchers were able to apply forensically relevant methods and techniques to wildlife cases, including identification of nuisance animals or in the case of an animal attack.






My name is Maureen Peters Hickman, and I am Forensic Research Scientist at Western Carolina University. The title of my poster is “Into the Wild: Translating DNA-Based Human Identification Techniques to a Wildlife Attack”.

Back in May, there was a hiker that was attacked by an American Black Bear in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park while he was backpacking. The bear bit through this tent – and I will say that the hiker wasn’t doing anything wrong. He didn’t have any food, or anything like that; it was completely unprovoked.

While the attack was non-lethal (here he is afterwards, after he had been patched up, showing off his tent, so he was ok), park officials did want to try to identify the bear, because it’s not normal bear behavior to do something like that. So, they approached us about doing bear identification. They gave us the evidence items – the bitten book, the bitten bottle, the bitten phone, and the torn stuff-sack, and we processed these for trace evidence. We were able to get a full profile; specifically from the book gave us the best one.

Following that, the park officials camped out at the campsite, because often bears will return to the site of the attack. So, over the next three weeks, they captured three separate bears, they tranquilized them, and they took samples. They took a buccal swab from the bear (and this is actually the buccal swab – it’s all brown). Then they took a punch of tissue from the ear and they collected some hairs from the bears as well.

We did full genotyping on all those samples from the three suspect bears and we did not find that any of them were a match. In this table here, these top three here (the book, the bottle, and the stuff-sack) and then these are the 1, 2, 3 suspect samples, and you can see all the red indicates where they don’t match.

So, we weren’t able to identify the culprit bear, but now we have a very quick assay for the future. And, I should mention that we made this assay so once they give us the samples, we can turn it around usually in 6-8 hours, so if they have a bear that’s being held, they can hopefully release it, if it’s possible, so they don’t have to kill it.