George Amato, DNA Detective, in...

The Caiman Caper
George Amato


Hi, I am George Amato  and I'm a molecular biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. I analyze  DNA  to learn about animals from around the world. Sometimes the government calls me to help solve mysteries, like this time in 1993.

It all began when...

A graphic of a hand holding a landline telephone receiver with a speech bubble with the words, "Doctor Amato, we need your help!"

I received a phone call from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. One of their officers told me he had spotted some suspicious packages at Kennedy Airport in New York City. These boxes contained handbags and shoes. 

By looking at the pattern on the reptile skins, the officer had a hunch they were made from Yacaré caiman, a relative of the crocodile and alligator.

My blood started to boil. “But the  Yacaré caiman  is a protected species,” I said into the phone. “Bringing skins of that animal into the U.S. is against the law!”

A graphic of a human silhouette running with two suitcases and a speech bubble with the words, "I'm innocent. Those reptile skins are legal."

“Exactly!” said the guy at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “That’s why the officer seized the shoes and handbags from the reptile skin importer.”

“So, what’s the problem?” I asked.

“The importer said it was not a protected caiman,” he said.

The importer claimed that it‘s impossible to tell the difference between caimans just by comparing skin patterns. This disagreement went to court. And that‘s where I came to the rescue.

To solve the DNA mystery...

PCR machine

FIRST I took samples of the reptile skins to my lab at the American Museum of Natural History. There I used some high-tech machines to separate the DNA from everything else.

THEN I made lots of copies of the DNA, so it was easier to study.

A graphic of a machine ejecting a ticker with a sequence of letters.

NEXT I used a machine to figure out the DNA’s sequence, which looks like a long string of letters. Every animal species has its own DNA pattern. Geneticists can match DNA patterns the same way police match fingerprints.

FINALLY I compared this skin’s sequence with other crocodilian sequences in our DNA computer library. It was a perfect match to the Yacaré caiman! Those shoes and handbags were definitely made from a legally protected species.

A photo of two caimans with a superimposed graphic with the words, "Yay! George saves the day!"

I gave this report to the judge. Based on the DNA evidence, the judge agreed that the skins were illegal. The skins were taken away and the importer had to pay a fine.

Now it's your turn to be a DNA Detective! See if you can...

Crack the DNA Code!
Image Credits:

Photos: George Amato, Lab machines: courtesy of Denis Finnin, AMNH; Caimans: courtesy of Santos Breyer, Crocodilian Photo Gallery; Elephant: courtesy of Jason Lelchuk, AMNH; American Crocodile: courtesy of Julio Caballeros Sigme, Florida Museum of Natural History; Tibetan Antelope: courtesy of George B. Schaller; Products: courtesy of Meg Carlough