Applying science to track timber

A straightforward new guide on scientific methods of timber identification and what they can be used for has been published by the Global Timber Tracking Network (GTTN). German government funded and coordinated by the European Forest Institute, with technical support from Germany’s Thünen Institute, the GTTN’s aim is to help combat illegal logging and related timber trade by ‘operationalization of innovative tools for wood identification and origin determination’.

The new guide, available for download from the GTTN website, is titled Scientific methods for taxonomic and origin identification of timber and came out in July.  It is targeted at authorities, traders, importers and other timber sector stakeholders. It also includes international contact listings for laboratories undertaking timber identification using the various methods, which is searchable by type of analysis and location.

The guide provides brief descriptions of the identification approaches. These comprise:

  • macroscopic or microscopic wood anatomy identification, which looks at the material’s anatomical features
  • direct analysis in real time time-of-flight mass spectrometry (DART TOFMS), which focuses on wood chemical composition
  • near infra-red spectroscopy (NIR spectroscopy), which looks at the wood’s  surface characteristics and chemical composition
  • stable isotope analysis
  • and genetic identification.

Using infographics, the guide explains which methods can be used for identifying  species,    family/genus and species group, country and area of harvest and individual trees.

It also says which are suited for use with different materials; solid wood, including raw wood, veneer, plywood, and ‘other manufactured solid wood’, charcoal, particleboard,pulp, paper and fibreboard.

Currently, it states, DART TOFMS is only reliable for species identification, while analysis of stable isotopes, which are linked to environmental conditions, is limited to ascertaining origins of samples and is not a method for identifying species.

Genetic analysis can be used to identify species, origin and individual tree, although is dependent on the compilation of a sufficiently large and diversified genetic data base for reference.

The suitability of various methods, says the guide, is also dependent on the size of sample that can be tested.