Pollen on the surface of water

The pollen detectives

Tiny pollen grains can help solve crimes

In 2014, a 27-year-old gangster from Christchurch, New Zealand, was jailed for murder after an expert matched pollen grains from grasses found at his property to pollen grains embedded in the victim’s coat.

Although it’s not common to use palynology – the study of pollen and spores – to solve crimes, it’s becoming more so. The useful things about pollen are that it gets everywhere, it’s specific to each plant species, and it’s incredibly resilient – like a fingerprint that is really difficult to rub off. (Read our Real Voices interview with a forensic botanist for more.)

Pollen survives in peat bogs and ice to tell us about plants from the past. The first evidence of pollen in the fossil record appears over 300 million years ago. But there are also other components of plants that give us information about the world. Tree rings can tell a historian when a particular avenue of trees was planted at a stately home. Carbon extracted from plants in thousand-year-old ice cores can help scientists learn about the planet’s past climate. Seeds too can be useful for solving crimes. In one Dutch murder case, knotgrass seeds from the suspect’s car were matched to plants found at the scene of the attack.

Lead image:

dan.kristiansen/Flickr CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in May 2016.

Ecology and environment
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development