Mite detectives can unravel crimes by locating stolen goods

October 25, 2018, University of Reading
Mite detectives can unravel crimes by locating stolen goods
Credit: University of Reading

Some of the world's biggest heists, involving huge bundles of cash or stolen goods, could be solved by one of nature's smallest creatures.

New research at the University of Reading has shown that items stolen by criminals and buried for safekeeping can be traced using mites living in , which provide clues to their specific location anywhere in the world.

Scientists worked on a 2016 crime in Germany, where at least 500,000 euros were stolen and buried abroad. After police seized some banknotes from one of the criminals, mites attached to the notes were rescued, allowing the geographic location where the money was buried to be narrowed down to a region of Australasia where the mites originated.

M. Alejandra Perotti, associate professor in Invertebrate Biology at the University of Reading and co-author of the report, said: "With this research we demonstrate that mites can be big players in investigations into high-profile crimes. This case highlights the importance of carefully identifying and preserving minute organisms found at crime scenes, something which until now has been overlooked by investigators or police.

"We could be using these microscopical animals to recover cash, drugs or even corpses, which are often buried by criminal gangs to hide evidence or be retrieved later. This breakthrough was made possible by the work of a talented scientist who fully dedicate their research to unravel these mysteries."

In the study, published in the journal Forensic Science International, the scientists outline how invertebrates in soil were used to pinpoint the hiding place of stolen property. They refer to other solved and unsolved cases where the technique could potentially have been used.

In the German case, the perpetrator found carrying the stolen banknotes initially claimed that the money was buried in Spain. However, the scientists found the seized notes were covered in traces of a non-European, rare species of root or bulb . These are known to feed on seeds of palm trees and roots of trees native to a region of Australasia, which allowed detectives to narrow down their search to a specific area. The culprits later confessed they had buried the money in Thailand.

Medjedline Hani, a final-year Ph.D. student in Dr. Perotti's lab, who conducted most of the research in the case, added: "Soil is often used in forensic analyses when pieces of evidence from a crime scene have been hidden under the ground or have come into contact with soil. However, the distinctive biological traits of organisms within the soil make them an untapped area that could offer vital clues."

Banknote counting machines used to value the confiscated haul destroyed much of the fibres, minerals and mite evidence on the notes, but fortunately the soil expert at the Kriminaltechnisches Institut in Germany was able to isolate a few specimens. This was enough to allow the Reading scientists to study the mites, determine the species and consequently gather details of their geographic distribution, estimating the possible location of the buried money.

Explore further: What happens to stolen guns?

More information: Medjedline Hani et al. Soil bulb mites as trace evidence for the location of buried money, Forensic Science International (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2018.09.016

Related Stories

What happens to stolen guns?

April 25, 2018

Only about one per cent of all gun transactions in the US are thefts, and there is no evidence that theft is an important source of guns to those who use them to commit violent crimes. In an analysis of nationwide and state-specific ...

Oil spill impacts in coastal wetland

July 10, 2017

Although evidence of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill may not be visually obvious today, crude oil can still be found in Louisiana coastal marshes. Oil not initially degraded has become buried under the yearly pile of ...

Using LIDAR to find unmarked graves of murder victims

August 2, 2018

A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in the U.S. reports that LIDAR can be used to find the unmarked graves of murder victims. In their paper published in the journal Forensic Science International, ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.