Forensic Palynology and the search for geolocation: Using pollen “fingerprints” to generate investigative leads

Forensic Palynology and the search for geolocation: Using pollen “fingerprints” to generate investigative leads
Duration: 60 Minutes
Module 1 Resources
Recorded on: 2020-03-04
Unit 1 Slide Deck: Forensic Palynology
Unit 2 Workbook: Forensic Palynology and the search for geolocation, Using pollen “fingerprints” to generate investigative leads
Unit 3 Recording: Forensic Palynology

Sometimes, despite best effort, practices and technology, a case investigation arrives at a dead-end. If only there is a process that can provide scientifically-validated leads and support to existing processes and tools utilized by investigators. Fortunately, there is. Forensic Palynology looks at pollen grains, analyzes it by type and through relative percentage, is able to narrow down into a specific region the subject sampled.

This session’s resource speakers are Dr. Andrew Lawrence and Amanda Bixler. Dr. Lawrence is one of only two forensic palynologists in the US and is affiliated with the Customs and Borders Protection (CBP). His specialized skill allows him to work on a wide range of cases. Meanwhile, Amanda Bixler is the Forensic Services Coordinator for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) who facilitates forensic testing for missing and unidentified children.

Together, they talk about the fascinating science of palynology and how it is being utilized in investigations. Specifics discussed in this course include:

  • Palynology: What it is, what pollens are, how to identify regions or travel history through it, and which other fields utilize this method.
  • The first documented use of forensic palynology and a look into the full process of sampling, lab work, and analysis.
  • How palynology is used in investigations – what it can do, where to get samples, the types of leads it can provide, and its admissibility in court.
  • The different types of cases where forensic palynology is utilized and specific case studies for these.
    • Taking samples from vehicles to retrace the travel route it took and its origins, particularly useful in drug smuggling cases.
    • Working on cold cases by collecting samples from time-worn evidence to develop and manage leads for missing and unidentified persons.
    • Investigating a person of interest to corroborate or refute their alibi.
    • Tracing the origin, route, and destination of sex traffickers by collecting samples from the victims.
  • The possibilities of forensic palynology based on the quality of pollens that enable it to withstand time and its limitations in terms of results.

Questions from the audience relate to:

  • Acquiring pollen samples from human airways at autopsy.
  • The path to becoming a forensic palynologist.
  • Private organizations that are looking into forensic palynology capabilities.
  • The manual process of analyzing pollen samples and developments on automating it.
  • What NamUs and NCMEC are.
  • The process involved to get in touch with CBP and their forensic palynology services.
  • The Daubert criteria which deem forensic palynology not admissible in court.
  • The types of references used for pollen identification.


See Related Article:Pollen Nerds:’ US Government Enlists Scientists to Track Drug Loads, Crack Cold Cases


Audience Comments

  • “That was fascinating! I didn’t realize that pollen doesn’t degrade over time other than Andy’s description of it looking “horrible.” A great resource to have!” — CJ
  • “How pollen is extracted from sources to find out it origins for homicides; found it sad how there are only 2 people working this valuable resource… Thoroughly enjoyed this webinar!!” — Del
  • “Fascinating. The level of scientific analysis was a bit above me, but both presenters explained it well in understandable language. Kudos to you for securing the presentation of such an interesting topic!” — Renata
Additional Resources
4 years ago
After the Webinar: Forensic Palynology and the Search for Geolocation. Q&A with the Presenters
Webinar presenters Amanda Bixler and Dr. Andrew Laurence answered a number of your questions after t […]
4 years ago
NCMEC Forensic Imaging Techniques and Services
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has been creating age progressions for long […]
5 years ago
Using NamUs to Resolve Missing and Unidentified Indigenous Person Cases
NamUs is a powerful tool designed to assist with missing and unidentified persons cases. Traditional […]
6 years ago
Federal Legislation Impacting Children Missing from Care and NCMEC Resources
More often than not, children who end up under the care of social service agencies have some form of […]
6 years ago
DNA Basics: Understanding DNA Evidence in Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions
Law enforcement encounters all types of cases, from the most no-brainer infractions and misdemeanors […]
6 years ago
Forensics at the Speed of Crime
Gun crime is an issue that continues to plague our communities. Law enforcement and justice professi […]