Palynology 101.


Author: Brownie Carlisle

Brownie Carlisle at

A few years ago, a car thief in Finland–of all places–got quite a surprise.  Finnish police showed up at his doorstep to arrest him for stealing a car.  He claimed that he had gotten a ride—hitch hiked along.  This was not what the owner of the car said, and even though he didn’t know the identity of the thief the police knew they had their man—they had found a mosquito in the car that was particularly full. DNA testing of the mosquito’s last meal provided them with a DNA hit that lead to the thief who had assumed there were no witnesses.  There were.  They were just tiny and couldn’t speak.

It comes as no real surprise forensic science would be able to discern location and culprit from such minuscule evidence.  And although using a mosquito might seem terribly clever, forensic investigators are well-versed in using insects to identify time of death, place of death, and in some case, clarity on the way someone died.  Insects that are present within a crime scene—dead or alive—are referenced to as sarcophagi. This comes from their presence in the sarcophagus of kings and nobles in ancient Egypt. The mummification process was rather thorough, but it didn’t prevent bugs from helping themselves to the deceased.  Therefore they are a necessary and not too surprising body of evidence for forensic scientists.

We’re used to thinking of crime scenes in this purely physical manner—its seen all the time—ad nausea, some might say—on shows such as Bones and CSI: Insert City Name Here.  What you might not have considered about a cold case where neither the physical evidence nor the sarcophagi can help determine the location of the victim, the place where the crime occurred or how.

Enter the exceptionally small and highly-specialized world of the forensic palynology.  Yes, I know you’ve never heard of it.  Me either, until a few years ago I was called on to write an article on “What is Studied in Forensic Palynology.  I had completely forgotten about it until I was I was reading about a case in Boston written up in the Atlantic Monthly.

Three years ago, a two-year-old girl was discovered in a trash bag on Boston’s Dear Island with some decomposition and no identification.  Police were completely stumped.  They contacted the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and asked them to intervene.  Often times local police departments are stumped and don’t have the resources or finances to figure out what’s on their hand.  The Center for Missing and Exploited Children will offer funds and resources otherwise unavailable in the case of a missing child or an unexplained death. That’s when they called Andrew Laurence, the had palynologist of the U. S. Customs and Border Protection Service.

Andrew Laurence is one of a very few forensic palynologist working today. Palynologist work with one substance and one substance only:  pollen.  With 348,000 plant species in the world, that’s a lot of pollen.  And it’s a lot of pollen that’s completely localized.  A pine tree that grows in Arizona, for instance, will produce different pollen because of the soil consistency than will a pine tree in Mississippi. Certain species help palynologist eliminate the crime scene as a location for the victim’s residence.  For instance, if there is a victim covered with more than one type of cedar pollen, then that eliminates the entire Northeastern United States where only one type of cedar (Cedar-of-Lebanon) can grow and thrive.

With the case of the young girl, her clothing contained only Cedars of Lebanon pollen mixed with soot which means she was not only for the Boston area, but within an urban environment as well. Privet hedges—a strictly domestic plant—was also present in the pollen analysis, meaning she lived in a neighborhood with landscaping. It was apparent that Baby Doe was playing outside amongst the New England pines and oaks, and nowhere else.

Such a find is exceptionally satisfying to a palynologist, whom often feel terribly overworked by the system as many of them opt not to go into forensic study.  It came as a surprise to me that many of the palynologist in the world are geologist first.  They choose work in the geology field such as with oil exploration because the pay and the workload are considerably better. Those who do go into the field receive their training from people such as Laurence who stay in the field to make a true difference.  It is a broad discipline which cannot be duplicated by machines—although it goes to note our government is trying.

Part of the difficulty of specializing in palynology is that it is not limited to trees, their findings are not limited to trees and domestic bushes. Pollen, spores, dinoflagellates which are part of marine algae are studied as well.

So why pollen?  What makes it so reliable in cases that just can’t seem to be solved. Laurence speaks of a case in which a body had gone unidentified for forty years until he received the clothing samples and vacuumed up the pollen from the clothes and took a closer look. Eventually, the mother and her boyfriend were convicted of the crime.

See, pollen—unlike sarcophagi—do not deteriorate.  They can last millennia. Seven years ago when a working under the auspices of the University of Memphis discovered an additional chamber near Tut’s tomb (aka KV 63) that had not been disturbed for nearly 3,000 years full of burial preparations, he found that the pollen and flora left behind had not deteriorated.  When a coffin was being removed from the site, he called over a reporter and lifted a protective covering to reveal a pillow underneath.  “Smell.” He said.  The reporter said the presence of lavender was still there as he inhaled deeply.  Pollen is foolproof in this manner—it cannot be removed and it cannot be destroyed by time.  Dubbed KV 64, pollen analysis provided the Egyptologist with a better understanding of the origin of the products found.

Pollen becomes so incorporated in the soil that geologist are trained to identify it as a matter of course. Therefore if a body has been moved, an examination of dirt will lead to the origin of the crime.  A good example of this is a case of a man who was a suspect in a case without a body.  Police confiscated a pair of muddy boots, analyzed them, and placed the suspect near the Danube River.  Upon hearing this news, the suspect confessed to the crime, lead the police back to the body, and is now incarcerated.

Zoologist have called upon palynologist to identify attackers at crimes scenes such as illegal ivory harvesting and rhinos shot and killed for their horn. They can use either pollen left in muddy footsteps or analyze spores left behind on evidence.

Spores, like pollen, are extremely specific and unlike pollen are asexual and not quite a specific.  A male or female gingko tree will be identified easier than spores which come from ferns, mosses and fungi.  But they play their role, particularly in identifying migratory choices within ancient cultures.

This is essential in identifying how and where a piece arrived within a culture and where the trade originated.  Algae can be used to identify such objects as it produces cysts known as dinoflagellates which are not round or oblong like pollen spores.  They are whip-like, hence their name “flagellum” meaning whip and “dino” for whirling, both out of the Greek. Remember “red tides” and their dangerous consequences when present in seafood?  Those are caused by dinoflagellates. They can prove the location and narrow the suspects in a crime when present in a body that washes up on shore.

The government is trying to entice more geologist to specialize in forensic palynology. Leaders such as Laurence beg the government to put their money into better pay rather than in a computer-based pollen analysis that won’t work.  There’s just too many variables in their identification. But once they’re found—the free days of a perpetrator are numbered.


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