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University of Florida researcher Ginger Clark and Daniel Brazeau examine images of DNA fragments on a light table as part of their efforts to use forensic DNA techniques to help Florida wildlife officers bag poachers.

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DNA Used To Catch Wildlife Poachers

Florida game officials are bagging poachers who might once have escaped their reach, thanks to DNA analysis performed at a University of Florida laboratory. More commonly used to catch murderers and rapists, the lab's forensic DNA techniques have proved so successful in nabbing deer poachers that officials have recently turned to it for help in cases involving wild turkeys, turtles, alligators and other hunted species in Florida. Since undertaking the work about three years ago, the lab has helped crack about 30 poaching cases statewide, a number they say will grow steadily as the lab branches out into more and more species and types of cases.

The Biotechnologies for Ecological, Evolutionary and Conservation Sciences Genetics Analysis Laboratory at the University of Florida became involved in poaching cases after game officials enlisted it in 1998 to determine if meat came from Florida's native white-tailed deer or another species.

Ginger Clark, a UF senior biological scientist at the lab, developed a technique that could not only determine the species of deer based on tissue samples or blood, but also the deer's gender. The work quickly became useful in poaching cases.

Unlike the lengthy buck season, doe season on Florida's public lands lasts only two days. In several instances, game officers have sent the lab samples of fresh venison confiscated from hunters on suspicion it came from does killed out of season. Officers also have given the lab clothing stained with blood they suspected was from illegally killed does.

Using techniques similar to the deer technique, the lab has increased its scope recently. Newer cases include at least one that involved suspected poaching of wild turkey hens (only gobblers can be hunted in Florida.) It was determined the meat came from female turkeys, strengthening the case against the suspected poacher. Other cases have involved alligator snapping turtle meat and Florida black bear meat. In yet another example, a Florida seafood dealer, suspicious that a large purchase of white fish fillets contained an illegal fish species, approached the researchers for help. They confirmed some fillets were indeed illegal.

The lab also has determined that eggs being sold as freshwater turtle eggs in fact came from endangered sea turtles. Because sea turtles return to beaches where they hatched, the researchers can even tell where eggs were collected.

A pencil eraser-sized piece of flesh or drop of blood usually is enough to sequence the DNA to establish its precise genetic code. This code then can be compared against samples from known animal species to confirm or rule out a match.

All of the lab's 30 cases have been resolved in settlements in favor of the prosecution, with none going to trial. Several of those accused of poaching have confessed on when confronted with the DNA evidence. All game officers in Florida are now equipped with sampling kits to obtain DNA evidence during investigations.