Buggin’ Out

Drop the doughnut. Or the croissant. Or the bagel. Or anything remotely edible.

Beyond this point, eating and reading as a joint activity is highly inadvisable.

“We shot that on a dead pig,” says forensic entomologist M. Lee Goff about a model of a corpse on a slab in a faux-morgue, a video monitor of swarming maggots — lots and lots and lots of frenzied, famished maggots — embedded in its chest cavity.

“The body is in a state of decomposition. If you remove the chest, that’s what you’re going to see.”

That’s yuck-times-10 right there. And in its way, hideously fascinating, given that this curator is connected to the massively popular “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which begat “CSI: Crime Scene Insects,” a summerlong exhibit at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.

“He’s a consultant on the TV show, and they’ve actually used some of his case studies as story lines,” says museum director Marilyn Gillespie. “It has really piqued people’s interest in this whole field that people hadn’t really thought about before.”

That would be the study of insects’ appetite for a dead body and what it tells criminologists about the crime, including time of death, infliction of wounds, presence of drugs and toxins, whether a body has been moved and … well, you’ve seen “CSI,” right? The show with William Petersen vividly depicting Gil Grissom’s gruesome obsession with the little buggers crawling in and around the cadaver of the week, snacking on organs, feasting on flesh and gnawing on bones?

“When they first come in here, people don’t realize how important insects are and the overall ecology of it, let alone just crime, because they are the cleanup crew,” says tour guide Ed Johnson, invoking a pleasant term for a lurid sight. Switching references from forensic to symbolic, he points out a Renaissance painting of a mother holding a child as a fly attaches itself to the boy’s leg.

“That means the child won’t live to maturity,” Johnson says.

Perhaps those whose ages aren’t yet in double digits can skip that.

“First grade we don’t bring in here,” Johnson says about admission policies. “But second grade and up, we’ll bring in because they’re more curious about it.”

During a recent excursion, the exhibit was indeed overrun by a gaggle of excited second-graders ogling nature’s ickier aspects, validating another of nature’s laws:

Little kids plus gross stuff equals hey, let’s party!

And what a peculiar party.

Following a videotaped greeting/conversation by Petersen and Goff, exhibit-goers can begin by peeking in on live fly hatcheries. “At the crime scene, the fly is usually the first visitor,” Gillespie says, making it sound as if they’ve just buzzed in for cocktails. “The fly lays eggs, and the life cycle is the way the eggs grow and progress for a timeline. And as time progresses, it’s not just the fly, there are other visitors” — company’s here, refill the punch bowl! — “as insects come to feed on maggots. Knowing that timeline in the cycle of beetles and other insects helps.”

Which brings us to viewing live Dermestid beetles and Rottenwood termites as panels explain each creepy-crawly’s role in decomposition, as well as the feeding habits of their fellow partyers — centipedes, millipedes and mites.

“I wanted people to see there’s a new field here that’s good, practical and accomplishes a lot of good, but in a manner that’s across-the-board, so everyone could get something out of it,” says Goff, author of “A Fly for the Prosecution: How Insect Evidence Helps Solve Crimes,” and chairman of the forensic sciences program at the Chaminade University of Honolulu.

“I didn’t want something so gross that everyone’s going to turn and walk away, which you could do very easily. But I didn’t want to dumb it down.”

Once in the full spirit of decomposition and decay, an engaging element of the exhibit is a pair of displays with images of real discovered bodies on the ground and clues to prod you into thinking forensically to distinguish between the accident scene and the murder scene.

“You can go back to the 12th century for the first origins of forensic science, but it was probably in the mid-’80s that it started catching on in the U.S. in critical mass,” Goff says. “Now it’s spreading into other parts of the world. It’s no longer a novelty act.”

Elsewhere in “Crime Scene Insects,” a rotating exhibit illuminated by strobe lights tricks the eye into seeing fake flies flying and maggots munching, and a mini-re-creation of a jury box and witness chair features a film of Goff testifying in a murder trial, no doubt similar to the fictional cases on which he consults on TV’s “CSI.”

“We had actual cases in Hawaii that they transplanted to the Las Vegas area and they were as accurate as you could have, given they were transferring it from the tropics to the desert. This show is different than a lot of other shows because they put science at the forefront,” says Goff, as much of an earring-wearing surfer dude as a detail-obsessed scientist.

“People have this idea of an entomologist as an old guy with a pith helmet and a beard running off a cliff with a butterfly net,” Goff says. “I wanted to get rid of that image a little bit, because entomology is very useful. Unfortunately, we do occasionally run off cliffs with butterfly nets.”

After he lands, he can expect quite a few … visitors.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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