Maggot Monets

A Southeastern Louisiana University researcher uses paintings made by maggots to turn students on to forensic entomology

Oct 21, 2010
Vanessa Schipani
At the linkurl:USA Science & Engineering Expo; in Washington, DC this weekend (23rd-24th October), scores of researchers from all over the United States will meet to sow the seeds of scientific interest in minds of America's youth. But one researcher stands out for the medium she uses to transmit her intellectual curiosity.
The making of maggot Monets
Randy Bergeron, SELU photographer
linkurl:Erin Watson,; a Southeastern Louisiana University researcher and one of more than 1500 exhibitors at the expo, will use paintings made by maggots to turn students on to her field.Though Watson's maggots will be engaged in artistic pursuits this weekend, they normally help her do her job as a forensic entomologist, which entails determining the approximate time of death at crime scenes. Blow files and flesh flies arrive at a body within minutes of death and lay their eggs immediately, says Watson, making them an extremely accurate means of predicting when a murder was committed. By studying the developmental characteristics of the maggots -- third-instar blow fly larvae -- Watson can back calculate times of death to within a few hours postmortem in most cases."I stay away from talking about murder with elementary school children," says Watson. "But there's still something for them to learn. And there's something for adults to learn too." At the expo in DC, Watson will be using maggot art to spur curiosity about forensic entomology in high school students and adults. With younger children, however, she will concentrate on the vital role maggots and insects play in decomposition, which often leads to discussions about the life cycle of the fly as well.Maggot art is made by gently dropping the larvae into blobs of non-toxic, water-based paint. As the maggots crawl across paper using their hook-like mouths, they drag streams of paint behind them creating what Watson calls "Maggot Monets." After a little coercion, children become enthralled with the project, says Watson, which has caused throngs of eager youngsters to crowd around her table at past exhibits. Watson says she first saw "Maggot Art," coined and created by forensic entomologist linkurl:Rebecca O'Flaherty; in 2001, at an insect expo in 2002. According to a University of California-Davis Spotlight linkurl:article; published in 2007, O'Flaherty, who received her Ph.D. in entomology from the University of California, Davis, first realized the maggot's artistic potential while observing the trails that larva left across decaying flesh. But O'Flaherty and Watson aren't the only ones using maggot art to educate students. linkurl:Richard Merritt,; a forensic entomologist at Michigan State University, also uses the technique and has found it to be a great means of "getting around the gore and smell" associated with decaying carcases while still communicating the maggot's importance to the environment.Typically, adults are more hesitant than their children to make maggot art, notes Watson. But "within ten minutes, the adults will forget that they were grossed out and start picking [the maggots] up with their bare hands." And after they make a few paintings with their kids, she added, adults often humbly thank her for such a neat experience.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Maggot sleuthing;
[1st September 2008] *linkurl:Insect Art Winners: A slideshow;
[22nd February 2008] *linkurl:When I see an elephant...paint?;
[1st June 2007]