Above: Helen McMorris obtains a fingerprint from a feather that has been weathered using green magnetic fluorescent powder. The study is published in the journal Science & JusticePhoto: Abertay University


BREAKTHROUGH RESEARCH COULD have a “transformative impact” on the number of UK wildlife crime convictions, according to a new study.

Through laborious research into improving forensic investigation techniques, PhD student Helen McMorris, from Abertay University, Dundee, has discovered that, under lab conditions, fingerprints can be recovered from bird feathers that have been exposed to environmental conditions, such as wind and rain.

She believes her latest findings could potentially give investigators the chance to prove human involvement in raptor persecution, be it through an identifiable fingerprint or a touch mark from a human finger that identifies exact areas of contact on the bird of prey.

Latest figures from the RSPB’s Birdcrime report, show 68 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution in 2017, but only four prosecutions. Ms McMorris says investigations into such incidents can be difficult as there is no accurate measure of determining human involvement, which makes it difficult to prosecute.

She explained: “At this moment in time toxicology tests can prove that a raptor has been poisoned, and you can prove that a bird has been shot through x-rays and post mortem.

“But there’s no way of telling if a human has had any contact with that bird if it’s found dead in a field or on a hillside. You can’t hone in on the actual person responsible.”

During the study, sparrowhawk feathers were stored in indoor conditions for 60 days and buzzard feathers were left exposed to two different environmental conditions for 21 days. The results showed that although environmental exposure accelerated the deterioration of ridge detail and the number of hidden fingermarks, the team could still indicate areas of direct human contact with the bird of prey.

The results also suggested that if a bird of prey carcass is found hidden from view, the feathers would have protection from the environment, and so any successfully developed fingermarks are likely to be of better quality for longer than those developed on a carcass left visible. Ms McMorris says this type of evidence would be of use to raptor persecution investigations up to 14 days after contact.

Dr Ben Jones, head of science at Abertay University, added: “This study is an important step in moving from the laboratory closer to a real-life situation, as the technique moves from research to development for use in an investigative setting.”

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