Buried Treasure Of Stolen Cash Discovered Thanks To Tiny Mites

One of the mites found by the team. University of Reading

The devil is always in the details. Someone might be planning to steal a large amount of cash, run away with it, and bury it abroad, believing that they have thought of everything. And then they lose it all because of tiny little arachnids.

This might not seem like a common occurrence but tiny mites have cost a group of German criminals their loot. The gang stole at least €500,000 ($570,000) back in 2016 but one of the perpetrators was caught with some of the stolen cash about their person. They claimed the rest of the money was buried in Spain, but science suggested otherwise.

As reported in Forensic Science International, the banknotes had dead mites on them and researchers identified them to be specimens of Rhizoglyphus howensis. This is a species of root mite that wouldn’t be found in Europe let alone the Mediterranean countries. The mites were actually from Australasia, and the culprit later confessed to having buried the money in Thailand.

“Soil is often used in forensic analyses when pieces of evidence from a crime scene have been hidden under the ground or have come into contact with soil," lead author of the study Medjedline Hani, from the University of Reading, said in a statement. "However, the distinctive biological traits of organisms within the soil make them an untapped area that could offer vital clues.” 

This is the first time that soil micro-invertebrates have been used as trace evidence to find where an object has been buried. It is also the first record of this particular mite both on banknotes and in Europe. With the knowledge that they feed on the seeds of palm trees and the roots of a tree species known as Quercus patula, the investigators were able to significantly narrow down the potential area in which the money could be buried.

“With this research we demonstrate that mites can be big players in investigations into high-profile crimes," senior author Professor Alejandra Perotti added. "This case highlights the importance of carefully identifying and preserving minute organisms found at crime scenes, something which until now has been overlooked by investigators or police. We could be using these microscopical animals to recover cash, drugs or even corpses, which are often buried by criminal gangs to hide evidence or be retrieved later. This breakthrough was made possible by the work of talented scientists who fully dedicate their research to unravel these mysteries.”

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