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Researchers Learn To Dust Feathers For Fingerprints


You've probably heard of dusting for fingerprints at the scene of a robbery or a murder. But now investigators can do the same thing for a different kind of crime - killing birds of prey. In Britain and in other parts of Europe, these large birds are under threat from landowners and gamekeepers who trap, shoot and poison them. But until now, there was no good way to catch the perpetrators. Scientists at Abertay University say they have now come up with a breakthrough. Investigators can now lift human fingerprints from the feathers and eggs of those birds. The findings were made public by the journal Science & Justice. Joining us now is the lead researcher of that study, Dennis Gentles, in Dundee, Scotland. Welcome to the program.

DENNIS GENTLES: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: So what is new about this particular fingerprinting technique?

GENTLES: Actually, there's probably nothing new in it, Rachel. But we've put together a combination of things that's actually made it come together. With a machine called a quasar, which is a quasi-laser, we can fire light of particular wavelengths over this magnetic fluorescent powder, and it will fluoresce, which makes it stand out from the background. And that's why it's so handy to us for detecting finger marks on birds of prey.

MARTIN: This study, as I understand it, was actually inspired - is this right? - by an episode of "CSI"?


MARTIN: Really?

GENTLES: Yes, it is. And as a former scenes of crime officer myself, we always sort of look down upon "CSI" and say, no, no, they can't do that.

MARTIN: Right?

GENTLES: That's impossible. But one of my former colleagues, his friend had said to him, I see you can now get fingerprints off feathers, and Malcolm (ph) had turned around and said, don't talk rubbish. But Malcolm, being the inquisitive type, decided to go out one day, and he found a couple of feathers lying on the ground, and he picked them up, put his own finger marks onto the feathers and tried dusting them with the various types of powders he's got. Nothing was happening. And down the bottom of his case, he had this box of red powder that sat there. He thought, I'll give that a try. And, of course, it gave it enough contrast to the sort of shades of gray feathers that he had picked up.

MARTIN: So we're talking about these large birds of prey. Why are these birds being targeted, and how will this particular technology prevent that?

GENTLES: Well, these have been targeted by probably landowners who are likely to lose some income to their land because birds of prey will take the grouse on pheasants that they've raised upon that land. And other people will be taking the Peregrine falcon's eggs, which are status symbols in areas like the Middle East, and incubate them. Or they'll take chicks that have actually been hatched and rear them themselves. And then, of course, it becomes a lucrative trade. So there's been over 2,5000 cases since 2006 of birds of prey being taken or killed illegally in the UK alone.

MARTIN: And how do you think this new technology - being able to dust for fingerprints on feathers - do think it'll slow the targeting of these birds?

GENTLES: Well, I hope it does, because, you know, now we're able to actually obtain a fingerprint from the flight feathers of birds of prey. And even if we can't get a recognizable fingerprint, we can actually focus on the area where we can see a mark where someone has handled that bird. And that allows the forensic scientists who focus on the area which can lead to a DNA trace, and if we don't get the fingerprints, we can get hopefully the perpetrators by way of their DNA.

MARTIN: Dennis Gentles is a forensic scientist at Abertay University in Scotland. Thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your research.

GENTLES: Much appreciated. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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