On a recent day, Ed Espinoza stood inside a 30-foot-long trailer next to a whirring machine about the size of a commercial photocopier. The device is known as a DART time-of-flight mass spectrometer.
“This is the Ferrari of mass spectrometers,” Espinoza said. “It gives us very accurate data.”
The trailer – a horse trailer-turned mobile lab – was parked outside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland. Staff here help the Fish and Wildlife Service solve crimes by doing DNA analysis on illegally sold plants and animals.
Espinoza said the mobile lab was a new attempt by forensic scientists like him to help get scientific instruments to the places where they’re most needed.
The Ashland lab is well known for its collection of taxidermied animals. A tall warehouse on site is filled with everything from scaly pangolins to tiger pelts. Over the years, Espinoza has seen trends in the illegal animal trade, including elephant ivory, bear bile used in traditional Chinese medicine and beluga sturgeon caviar from Russia. The latest trend, he said, has been timber from places like Southeast Asia, Africa and Amazonia.
Identifying the ‘chemical fingerprints’ of trees
Nearby, in one of the lab’s libraries, drawers are filled with samples of ebony and purple heart. Espinoza held up a small slab of bulnesia from Argentina, one of the world’s hardest woods.
“These samples specifically came from a very large container leaving Madagascar,” he said, showing off the contents of a long metal drawer filled with slices of rosewood.
Forensic specialists use collections like the Ashland lab’s as DNA comparisons against samples of potential illegal timber.
In the past, there’s been a gap in this sort of reference material, according to Marigold Norman, director of research at World Forest ID, an organization creating a geolocated database of wood commodities.
“It’s very difficult to say this timber came from this specific place unless you can compare it to something that actually came from there,” Norman said.
Cady Lancaster co-founded the Wood Identification and Screening Center at the Ashland lab, where she previously worked as a wildlife forensic scientist. She said forensic science helps enforce current laws by identifying illegal logging operations.
“We know it’s making it into the U.S. But unless you can prove it, you can’t catch the bad guys,” Lancaster said.
Illegal logging contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss. It funds organized crime, according to Espinoza. And cheaper illegal logging undercuts prices for sustainably managed timber, Lancaster said.
She helped develop a method of analyzing what she described as the “chemical fingerprints” for the more than 60,000 species of trees in the world. Using a mass spectrometer allows scientists to weigh the molecules of an unknown material, which can then be matched to the lab’s database.
“We just hold a wood sliver with tweezers and let a 660-degree Fahrenheit helium ion stream blaze over the wood,” Lancaster said. “That’s going to burn the wood away, release all of the molecules into the air so they can get sucked into the mass spec. It happens nearly instantaneously.”
Laws such as the Lacey Act and an international agreement known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora) are meant to prevent protected tree species from being sold in the U.S. But customs authorities at ports of entry can’t easily tell if something is illegal or not without the right testing tools.
A small town government lab’s logistical problem
So, the chemists at the Ashland lab faced a logistical problem. They had the testing technology in the form of the mass spectrometer, but Ashland, Oregon is nowhere near a major port where containers of timber are shipped into the U.S. Should suspected illegal timber be transported to the small Southern Oregon town? Or could they get the tool to port officials on the coast?
That’s where Espinoza’s new horse trailer came in.
Standing inside the modified trailer, he explained the key is its especially smooth ride to keep from breaking the mass spectrometer in transit. Additionally, they installed air suspension and hydraulic jacks in the bed of the truck that tows it to further absorb vibration.
“We want to make sure that it arrives in a way that it can work. We don’t want to destroy it from point A to point B,” he said.
The mobile lab also contains a digital microscope so forensic scientists can study the anatomy of wood samples as well as import permits to see if they’ve been forged. The equipment and modification cost about $600,000, Espinoza said.
Both Norman and Lancaster agreed that being able to deploy the trailer from Ashland to ports of entry will be helpful for customs agents.
“Having a scientist on hand who knows the statistics, who knows what part of the wood to ID and can bring it right back to the trailer, get you an answer in 10 minutes of ‘Oh, know we need more of this lot. Let’s keep looking into that.’ Of course, that’s going to be really powerful,” Lancaster said.
The trailer is expected to be deployed from the Ashland lab to a U.S. port of entry later this spring.