Published: November 12, 2016

How Our Fossil Prep Lab Helped Fight Real-Life Crime

William Simpson, Head of Geological Collections; Collections Manager, Fossil Vertebrates, Gantz Family Collections Center
A large horn being cut by a circular saw

Bill Simpson is the collections manager of fossil vertebrates. Bill's work includes managing the research collections of prepared fossils, researching SUE, and going on collecting trips.

Working at a natural history museum is never really a run-of-the-mill experience. In this case, my colleagues and I were able to use geology equipment for a new purpose: to help combat wildlife smuggling. It all started when Larry Heaney, Negaunee Curator of Mammals, received a request from Wildlife Inspector Amanda Dickson. She specializes in the use of sniffer dogs for the enforcement arm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). They have seven K9 teams at ports of entry around the United States and Puerto Rico. The teams are trained to find elephant ivory, rhino horn, python skin, sea horses, and sea turtle material. The future existence of all of these groups of animals is seriously threatened by illegal activities, especially poaching. Smugglers are creative in moving valuable parts of these animals into and out of the U.S., but FWS is active in using a variety of means to thwart them—including sniffer dogs. Extensive training is required, using samples of the materials that the dogs need to find hidden in baggage. 

A woman in law enforcement uniform with a dog sniffing packages

The most recent group of K9 handler teams to become certified did not have enough rhino horn to continue training their dogs once they returned to their ports. One of the FWS K9 Handlers reached out the American Zoological Association, seeking donations of rhino horns from trimming or from animals that died of natural causes. Several zoos responded and made generous donations; however, some of the donations were whole horns that were much too large to work with easily. Also, the K9s are trained on small amounts of the target materials so they can detect small quantities being smuggled. In order to train the dogs properly, the horns needed to be cut into pieces as small as a half a pound.

It turns out that rhino horn is very difficult to cut; it’s made of a remarkably tough, dense material that is similar to that of fingernails—but on a massive scale! Larry approached me, as collections manager of fossil vertebrates, to see if geological rock saws might do the trick. We have a variety of rock saws to trim down geological specimens and make thin sections of fossils to study them.

Over several visits, Amanda and I cut the horns into enough samples for the K9 teams to train with. This involved hours of patient work with a water-cooled rock saw, which did the trick until the diameter of the horn became too thick for this saw. Then we switched to a bandsaw. With the assistance of Chief Preparator Akiko Shinya, who went out and purchased a bunch of new bandsaw blades, Amanda and I continued cutting the thicker parts of the horn near the base. In all, we went through four bandsaw blades! But in the end, we were able to create enough samples were created for the K9 teams to proceed with training. As a result, smugglers of rhino horns will now have greatly reduced chances of making it past FWS enforcement efforts.


William Simpson

Bill Simpson is trained as a mammalian paleontologist and is in charge of all the fossil vertebrate collections.