What is forensic palynology

Forensic palynology was invented in Austria


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The Peggy case is not the first in which the biologists from the institute on Vienna's Rennweg become forensic technicians. Exactly 59 years ago, forensic palynology was invented in this house. Back then, a murderer had fooled the Viennese police for months. He once claims that he cannot remember where he hid the body of the friend he shot. Then again he led the policemen to the wrong places several times and had them dig up half the forests around Vienna.

Without success - until Wilhelm Klaus got involved in the case. The paleobotanist from the University of Vienna examined the perpetrator's shoes and clothing. Among the thousands of pollen grains that stuck to it, Klaus also found hickory pollen. The scientist knew that this special walnut only existed in one place: near the municipality of Spillern in Lower Austria. When the perpetrator was confronted, he was so surprised that he surrendered and revealed the exact location.

The new method in criminology was soon forgotten again. While palynology soon became a routine forensic examination in New Zealand, for half a century nobody in continental Europe thought of paying any attention to pollen - until Martina Weber stepped on the scene to pounce on corpses, murder weapons and transports.

"As an additional investigation method, pollen analysis is a great advantage for us," says Hannes Fellner, investigator at the Lower Austria State Office of Criminal Investigation. "We saw a few years ago that forensic pollen analysis works well internationally. In Great Britain, for example, the police secure the pollen traces of almost every bank robbery."

In Germany, on the other hand, murders have mostly happened when Martina Weber receives a call from the police. In the beginning, the exotic had to prove herself at the scene of the crime. Weber had met the forensic palynologist Dallas Mildenhall from New Zealand, brought him to Vienna as a visiting professor and learned the basics of forensic science from him.

When Weber then went to the police and offered her services, it wasn't long before she came to her first case: a half-burned female corpse that was found in Lower Austria. "When the samples were taken in the dissecting room, the pathologists came to see if the botanists were still standing upright," says Weber with a laugh, who drove the pollen search together with a colleague.

She prefers to drive to the crime scene herself anyway. "As a botanist, you look around the area very differently than the detectives. I see right away what is growing in the area."

It becomes particularly meaningful when Weber comes across animal-flowered pollen. Unlike the dust-dry grains of wind-pollinated plants, which can be carried for miles around by any breeze of air, the grains of the animal pollinators, which are surrounded by a sticky substance or equipped with spines and barbs, adhere to living beings in order to be brought to the next flower . Where animal pollen sticks, there must have been more or less direct contact.