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updated 12/28/2009 3:45:50 PM ET 2009-12-28T20:45:50

For the first time, DNA evidence has been used to unambiguously prove wolf poaching and to identify a suspected serial killer of wolves, according to a new study.

A key piece of evidence, researchers believe, is a necklace strung with 10 wolf teeth that was confiscated by police at the home of the suspect in the Liguria region of Genoa Province, Italy.

"(The individual) declared that he had bought the necklace in a market fair from a Moroccan man during a festival," project leader Romolo Caniglia told Discovery News. Caniglia added that the suspect, in public and in front of police, also previously "declared he would kill a wolf and would make it leave without teeth."

Now the man, a sheep herder, faces two to eight months in jail or a fine of up to $3,047 for wolf poaching if convicted, said Caniglia, a geneticist at the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), which operates on a shoestring budget due to lack of governmental funding.

"Unfortunately the trial is still ongoing because law in Italy is a slow system full of bureaucracy," so the suspect serial killer's name cannot be mentioned, he said, adding that a wolf trap, rifles and ammunition were also confiscated.

The police sent Caniglia and his team the necklace, from which they extracted DNA. They compared this information with a large database of wolf and dog genotypes at ISPRA.

The database is maintained in compliance with European and national laws that require wolf populations, as well as those for other protected large predators, like the brown bear and lynx, to be monitored.

Caniglia explained that DNA isn't always just taken from dead animals. He and his team also regularly acquire samples non-invasively through analysis of found fecal material.

The genetic investigation of the tooth necklace allowed them to identify six Italian wolf individuals — three males and three females — from the database, Caniglia said.

One of the males had previously been discovered shot dead, with part of its muzzle missing. Both this wolf and at least one other lived very close to the suspect's home, according to the study.

In the early 1970s, fewer than 100 wolves remained in Italy. Since 1971, a ministerial decree that bans wolf hunting has led to a population increase, but up to 20 percent of these animals are still illegally or accidentally killed each year in Italy, according to the study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics.

Even the "accidents" can be disturbing, as they often involve shootings, poisons and snares meant to kill other animals, like foxes and wild boars. Some hunters and livestock breeders, including the suspect, claim these animals, along with wolves, hurt their livelihood.

Caniglia admits that wolves and other carnivores have preyed on domestic herds. But he and his colleagues think that "hunters wrongly maintain the idea that wolves are competitors for the same wild ungulate game — wild boar, red deer, roe deer and fallow deer."

Nadia Mucci, an ISPRA researcher who did not work on the necklace project, told Discovery News that she expects the study to bolster the use of forensic DNA in cases involving the illegal killing and trade of animals.

She was "astonished by the high percentage of positive results obtained from DNA extracted from teeth," but said the scientists have "developed a very efficient protocol for the identification of genotypes from low concentrated and degraded DNA."

Clearly not all suspected killers wear their alleged victims' teeth on a necklace, but Caniglia is quick to point out that DNA can also be obtained from hair, saliva, bone fragments, skin and fur.

He predicts that in future, geneticists might pay greater attention to the cars, clothing, possessions and more of suspected animal poachers.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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