What is Forensic Palynology? - Definition & Cases

Instructor: Joanne Abramson

Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.

Most of us don't think about pollen outside of allergy season. But it turns out pollen is more useful than you think. This lesson discusses how pollen analysis is used to investigate and solve crimes.

What is Forensic Palynology?

Despite being sure to provide her with plenty of exercise, you notice that your Yorkshire terrier has been gaining weight. You think someone has been sneaking her treats when you are not watching. Yorkie likes to take her afternoon nap in your lily garden, so you decide to investigate. Searching the flowerbed, you discover suspicious shoe prints, bent flowers and some unfinished meatballs. You are definitely onto something. You check in your younger brother's closet and see that his shoes have mud on the soles and lily stamen lodged in the laces. His jacket has the tell-tale orange stains of lily pollen. You have found the culprit.

While you may not be a professional, you just utilized forensic palynology to solve your case. Forensic palynology refers to the use of pollen and spore identification and analysis to investigate civil or criminal cases. Pollen and spores are the tiny, powder-like reproductive units of plants. Pollen is utilized in sexual reproduction. while spores are for asexual reproduction. In fact, the term 'palynology' is based on the Greek word for 'the study of powder and dust.'

Forensic Analysis of Pollen and Spores

Pollen and spores have several characteristics that make them useful for forensic analysis. Both are produced in large quantities, are relatively resistant to destruction and have unique appearances that allow different species to be identified with a microscope.

Several difference species of pollen viewed with scanning electron microscope.
Scanning electron microscope image of pollen.

Since pollen is designed to be transported from its plant of origin via wind, water or animals, it is easily transferred or deposited onto people or other items - like the stains on your younger brother's jacket. Samples collected from crime scenes, people's clothing or hair, or car tires can be used to circumstantially link two people, places or objects, just as the mud and stamen on your brother's shoes linked him to the lily bed.

Collecting evidence from a crime scene.
Image of the FBI Evidence Response Team collecting evidence in the woods.

Case Studies of Forensic Palynology

Let's get a better idea of how this works in practice. The following examples are all true cases that were solved with the help of forensic palynology.

The Missing Body in Vienna, Austria, 1959

The earliest documented case of police using pollen to solve a crime occurred in Austria in 1959. A man disappeared during a trip down the Danube River. Even though his body could not be found, he was presumed murdered. Investigators had little to go on except some mud found on the suspect's boots. A sample of the mud was sent to palynologist Wilhelm Klaus of the University of Vienna for analysis.

Klaus discovered that the mud contained spruce, willow and alder pollen as well as a 20-million-year-old hickory pollen grain from an exposed Miocene-aged deposit. There was only one small area along the Danube River that contained this exact combination of pollen. Investigators told the suspect that not only did they know that he killed the man, they knew exactly where he did it. The defendant was so shocked that he confessed to the crime and led authorities to grave which, incidentally, was within the region identified by Professor Kraus.

Investigation into the Srebrenica Massacre, 1995

The small town of Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina was the site of a horrific mass killing during the Yugoslavian civil war, the deadliest European conflict since World War II. In 1995, the town was overrun by Bosnian Serb soldiers who executed more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys.

A memorial for the victims of the Srebrencia Massacre.
The Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial

The Bosnian authorities attempted to cover up the genocide. They exhumed the mass graves and re-buried the victims in smaller graves, claiming that they were casualties of separate, smaller battles.

Professor Tony Brown of the University of Exeter was part of a team of forensic analysts whose job was to link the many secondary burial sites to a few primary ones. Soil samples were taken from the skeletons, the graves and from around the burial sites. Pollen and spores from the soil were isolated, cleaned and analyzed.

The examination provided evidence that the bodies had been moved. For example, one of the primary burial sites was a wheat field. Remains found in secondary sites were linked to the original mass grave through the presence of distinctive grains of wheat pollen.

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