Studying species in the animal world helps police catch human criminals -- and vice versa. Originally developed to catch serial killers, a method called geographic profiling is now being used to study great white sharks, bats and bees.
In turn, criminologists expect that these biological studies will help refine their criminal studies, making it easier for them to catch criminals more quickly. Eventually they want to apply it to other fields, such as epidemiology.
"The same general geographic framework that criminologists use to catch criminals can be used by zoologists as well," said Kim Rossmo, co-author of an article in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface and a professor at the Texas State University Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation.
"This makes us think that it can be applied to other areas as well, like epidemiology."
Rossmo originally developed geographic profiling back in the 1980's. GP, as it's known, has since been adopted by police forces across the world and has been applied in such high profile cases as the BTK Killer and the D.C. Sniper.
GP works on the assumption that, like bats, bees and sharks, serial killers don't work right next to their homes and instead travel to a more distant locations to commit crimes, creating a buffer zone around their home or work.
"They want to operate in a comfort zone, close to an area they know but not where everyone knows them," said Rossmo.
By examining the geographic locations of crimes, scientists can determine a general vicinity for the home or work location of a criminal.
The idea to apply GP to animal studies came from watching stickleback fish, said Nigel Raine, a co-author on the JRSI paper and a professor from Queen Mary, University of London.
Sticklebacks create nests for their eggs in the midst of vegetation. They keep vegetation next to their nests intact, to help hide it from predators and parasites, and travel further away to forage.
The researchers tried GP first on bats, and then bees, the subject of the JRSI paper. Another study using GP in sharks is in press.
While the technique works better for some animals (bees) and less well for others (bats), the principle is still the same. By watching where animals feed, researchers can find their homes to study the animals more effectively or to help save endangered or threatened species by identifying what geographic areas need increased protection.
While the new information is certainly valuable to biologists, criminologists are looking at the new studies as a way to perform experiments that would be unethical or flat out impossible in the human world.
"You can control the settings in biology; where you put the flowers, what kind of flowers, et cetera," said Rossmo. "You can't do that with criminal offenders."
Lorie Velarde, a GIS analyst for the Irvine California Police Department, was recently recognized for using GP to catch a burglar who operated for about 20 years.
"[GP] works great," said Velarde. "The cases where it isn't as accurate is where we don't have enough crimes," said Velarde.
That's where the animal studies will have the biggest impact, says Velarde, by refining the models to make them more sensitive so detectives and analysts can find criminals sooner.
"If there is something happening in the animal world it certainly applies to the human world as well," she said.
The next step for GP, according to Rossmo and his colleagues, is to use it to find bigger killers, like disease-carrying mosquitoes and contaminated water.
"If we see a pattern of people being infected with malaria in an area, we can use that data to find a leaking pipe or empty tire and then spray it," said Rossmo.
That technique harkens back to the very beginnings of public health, said Rossmo, when scientists identified the source of a cholera epidemic as a water pump on a certain street using a technique very similar to modern day geographic profiling.