ASHLAND, Ore. – A soft hum is the only sound that can be heard as a hulking piece of machinery is brought to life. A small sample is inserted with tweezers between two metal receptors on the device.
Within seconds, a series of spikes and lulls, similar to a heart monitor, flash across a screen — a fingerprint for solid wood.
“There’s no DNA, there’s no anatomy. The only thing left is chemistry, and so we took advantage of that,” said Ed Espinoza, Deputy Director of the National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland.
Ashland’s lab is the only one in the world that can identify a species of tree without the actual tree. Previously it was impossible because no active DNA is stored within the hardwood; it can only be found in the flowers and leaves.
The lab measures precise atomic weight using nothing but a dead sliver, making them a hub for rooting out a surprisingly vast network of illegal wood smuggling.
“It is organized crime,” said Espinoza. “It’s just in our minds organized crime is all about guns and drugs only.”
In 1975 an international treaty called CITES began restricting trade of endangered plants and animals. Today that treaty is enforced in the United States by the Department of Fish and Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.
But precious and endangered wood, found in things like incense and musical instruments, have eluded investigators, who haven’t been able to positively identify the species. In fact, Espinoza says this is the first time investigators have been able to seriously start enforcement.
And while this remains the only use of the process so far, the future potential is great.
Already the lab is collecting rare wood samples from museums around the world to catalog. And once those catalogs are more developed, it will open up new ways to tell a story with nothing but a sliver.
“We can say this sample came from here and no other place in the world,” said Espinoza. “Thats kind of slick.”