DNA testing of wood from high-value bigleaf maple trees has led to the landmark prosecution of four timber thieves in the United States.
Researchers at the University of Adelaide in South Australia were approached in 2012 by officers from the US Forest Service following the felling and theft of bigleaf maples from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State.
Four defendants charged with the theft recently pleaded guilty in a case that marks the first time the US government has prosecuted for illegal interstate trade of wood products under the Lacey Act.
The Lacey Act is an American wildlife protection law that was amended in 2008 to include plants, making it illegal to trade in illegally sourced wood products.
University of Adelaide Research Fellow Dr Eleanor Dormontt manages the University’s timber tracking activities.
Dr Dormontt said the university became involved in 2012 when a US Forest Service agent read an article in local trade magazine Timber West about the work of Professor Andrew Lowe – a world leader in using DNA methods to identify timber – and his team in at the University of Adelaide.
“He took the initiative to give Professor Lowe a call here in Adelaide and from there we built a joint project bringing in various other parties that could bring expertise and finance to make it a reality,” Dr Dormontt said.
DNA taken from big leaf maple stumps in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest were matched with wood samples seized from the mill of the alleged thieves.
The wood samples were sent to the other side of the world for testing at the university in South Australia.
Researchers from the university’s Environment Institute developed DNA markers for the bigleaf maple population. They joined the US Forest Service and timber-tracking specialists Double Helix Tracking Technologies, with help from World Resources Institute, to develop the first DNA profiling reference database for the species. It’s the only one of its kind for trees that has been validated for use in court proceedings.
“This project has been a fantastic team effort here at Adelaide and we are all really proud that our work has helped secure such a landmark conviction,” Dr Dormontt said.
The bigleaf maple is the largest of all maple trees and possesses a high-value ornamental wood used for making musical instruments such as violins, guitars and piano frames.
Distortions in maple wood grain can create patterns prized by woodworkers.
When milled, a single log of maple can be used to make products worth more than USD $100,000.
Dr Dormontt said the US Forest Service, which estimates $1 billion worth of timber a year is stolen from private and public land in the United States alone, is keen to work with the university on future cases.
Professor Lowe, the University of Adelaide’s Chair of Conservation Biology and Chief Scientific Officer of Double Helix, said the technology could be used as a certification tool to verify whether bigleaf maple had been legally harvested.
“Our database indicates that, with these markers, the likelihood of two trees having the same DNA profile is as low as one in 428 sextillion; there are thought to be approximately 70 sextillion stars in the universe,” Prof Lowe said.
The DNA markers that were developed for this study have been peer-reviewed and were recently published in the journal Conservation Genetic Resources.