Typically, most people don't warm up to the idea of handling blow fly larvae, known better as maggots.
But for Southeastern Louisiana University biologist and entomologist Erin Watson, the wiggling insect larvae are tools that are an integral part of crime scene investigation and, for children, a basic introduction into the life cycle of insects and the valuable role they play in nature.
Watson takes her larvae to fairs and demonstrations, incorporating them into "maggot art." With children surrounding her, she puts drops of diluted water-based poster paint on paper and places a maggot in a drop. Soon it's traveling across the paper making designs and trails that look like abstract paintings.
"It doesn't take too long for the kids to get over the 'ick' factor and jump right in with the project," she said. "Pretty soon the teenagers and even adults get over their squeamishness. Then they all want to create maggot 'Monets' as we call them."
While the children are involved in the project, Watson exploits their natural intuitiveness and explains how maggots and insects play important roles in helping to decompose trash and dead animals. It often leads to a brief lesson on the lifecycle of a fly.
Watson is the only doctoral-level forensic entomologist in Louisiana and serves as a consultant to the FBI and area law enforcement agencies. Forensic entomology is often used to estimate a date of death in homicide cases.
Watson and several of her biology students will take their maggot art project on the road next month when they participate in the USA Science & Engineering Festival on the national mall in Washington, D.C. Oct. 23-24. The festival will feature more than 1,500 hands-on science and engineering activities.
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