An unsuspecting family in New Zealand bought suitcases at an auction at a storage facility. Then they found human remains inside them. After a forensic investigation, experts said the remains were from two children between the ages of five and ten; they had decomposed in storage for about three to four years. This week, the police filed for the arrested of a 42-year-old woman now living in South Korea, who was believed to have murdered her own children before fleeing New Zealand.  While this news story is devastating, it shares a commonality with many other horrific crimes. Bodies of murder victims are often found in suitcases and similar enclosed objects. So researchers in Australia are conducting a study with almost 70 animal remains decomposing in suitcases.
A New Study to Improve Forensic Investigation
The history of forensics is filled with bodies found in suitcases, wheelie bins, car trunks, bags, freezers, and fridges. Many crime movies depict murderers burying their victims in shallow graves, throwing them into a body of water, or abandoning the body altogether. However, in real life, murderers often hide their victims last-minute, in an easy-to-access container. Plus, suitcases and the like are easy to transport without immediate suspicion, and the tight enclosure might hide the smell of decomposition for some period of time. Forensic researchers call these kinds of places “limited access environments” since they limit or hinder one important aspect of the decomposition process: insects.
MU’s resident bug whisperer @doc_magni has provided a fascinating look inside suitcases used to hide murder victims, and the role played by the insects trapped within.— Murdoch University (@MurdochUni) August 31, 2022
Read about her first-of-its kind experiment in @ConversationEDU ➡️ https://t.co/U93ZD7g1x4#forensics #CSI pic.twitter.com/dgAmeFElHe
Forensic entomologists are scientific experts in criminal justice who can determine the time and source of death based on insects found around the body. This field is the basis of this new study. The researchers say this is the largest experiment of its kind in the world, and it will hopefully help future crime scene investigators learn more about a crime based on the decomposition process. The study involves almost 70 stillborn piglets placed individually into colorful suitcases and wheelie bins. Because “limited access environments” can impede insects, this experiment will help forensic entomologists develop a new understanding of how insects react in these situations. 
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How can Insects Help Solve Crimes?
During investigations, forensic entomologists use insects to determine the time of death, identify the presence of drugs and foreign DNA, as well as discover other key details about the victim and the criminal. For instance, carrion insects — house flies, coffin flies, flesh flies, and blue and green blowflies — can smell and are attracted to bacteria that appear as the body decays. When a corpse is left alone in a temperate climate, carrion insects will come to colonize it. After a few hours, they’ll lay eggs on the wounds and orifices; afterward the larvae hatch and feed on the flesh. An expert could determine when a murder took place based on the insects’ progress.
However, a limited access environment can restrict this development, although how much and in what ways remains unanswered. There have only been two pilot studies in this area and both showed that these insects can be clever at finding a way to reach hiding cadavers. But now the researchers hope to learn more. They’ve placed almost 70 suitcases and wheelie bins in Australian bushland, each with a piglet carcass inside.
The researchers placed controls in the environments for proper comparison. They also added instruments to record the temperature, humidity, and rainfall in the containers as well as their external environment. This study began in the early Australian winter of 2022 and the summer is the end date. The researchers plan to present the data in February 2023 at the largest global forensics science conference.
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The Research so Far
At first, insects struggled to access the suitcases during the cold and rainy seasons. But within a month, the researchers found egg clusters of blowflies around suitcase zippers. When they opened the suitcases, they found the larvae of coffin flies, blowflies, and some beetles; they hypothesized that the adult insects had laid the eggs on the zipper and the offspring squirmed through the teeth to reach the body. Plus, smaller adult flies could have similarly gone through the zipper and laid eggs directly on the carcass. However, once larvae grow into adult flies, they won’t be able to leave the suitcases; so the scientists could glean more information from them and find toxicology data in their exoskeletons. (For example, cocaine and heroin in the body could quicken the larvae’s development; meanwhile, poison-like malathion could slow the insects’ colonization.)
This study has the potential to provide many details about a crime scene, like the time or season of death, if the body had been relocated, as well as help determine the cause and circumstances of the death. Continued research in this area of forensics could potentially lead to more solved crimes, as well as forensic entomology becoming more prevalent in criminal investigation.
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