What is Forensic Botany?

A forensic botanist studies plant material as it relates to crime scenes. Specifically, forensic botanists use their skills to understand where and when a crime was committed and who committed the crime.

Similar to DNA and fingerprinting, plant material is often unique to certain plant species and ecological areas, thereby allowing a forensic botanist to identify the ecological and molecular restraints of various plan species and narrow down the possibilities surrounding the who, where and when of the crime.

Forensic botany is the scientific study of plants, or the application of plant sciences to criminal investigations. Forensic botany jobs incorporate a number of subdisciplines:

  • Palynology (study of pollens)
  • Dendrochronology (the study of tree rings)
  • Limnology (study of aquatic environments)
  • Systematics (classification of plants)
  • Ecology (the study of ecosystems)
  • Molecular biology

Forensic botany is a complex study, as it includes not only the study of plants, but their seeds, leaves, flowers, spores, wood, fruits, cells, hairs, and glandular hairs, as well. Botanical evidence may even consist of microscopic spores and pollen, making this field of study even more challenging.

Forensic botany has been accepted by the legal system for nearly 75 years, when it was used as evidence in the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby in 1935. In fact, forensic evidence presented at the trial (wood from the kidnapper’s ladder) was largely responsible for the conviction of Bruno Richard Hauptmann.

Unlike other forensic scientists, like forensic anthropologists or forensic odontologists (dentists), forensic botanists generally do not work with human remains; instead, their role involves making the connection between evidence and crime.

For example, forensic botanists may study pollen at a crime scene and on a suspect, which is easily transferred on one’s clothing, hair and skin, to place them at the scene of a crime. Because even common plants have their own unique combination of pollens at different locations (called pollen signatures), forensic botanists may be able to link a suspect to a specific crime scene.

Botanical evidence may be used to identify clandestine (illegal) graves by examining the changes of disturbed soil and the plants that often begin to grow, and it may be used to establish drowning at a specific location through the identification of specific diatoms and algae that are present in the lungs of the deceased. Forensic botanists may also study broken branches and plant material at the scene of a crime.

Education Requirements for Forensic Botanists

Forensic botanists often have no training specific to forensic science. Instead, their educational background is usually in the form of a bachelor’s or graduate degree in botany and/or biology, which includes expertise in such plant science subdisciplines as anatomy, ecology, systematics, plant chemistry, and molecular biology.

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Full-time forensic botanist careers are available in federal agencies, such as the FBI and the DEA, as well as in private sector and university settings. Many forensic botanists work in the field of botany and provide consultation and contract services to law enforcement agencies and forensic laboratories.

A degree in botany (with an emphasis in field biology) typically includes the following coursework:

  • Environmental Appreciation
  • Plant Form and Function
  • Career Planning for Botanists
  • Plant Genetics
  • Evolutionary Survey of Plants
  • Plant Physiology
  • Introduction to Natural Resource Management
  • Biology of the Plant Cell
  • Soils
  • Plant Ecology
  • Plant Geography
  • Mycology
  • Algology
  • Plant Evolution
  • Cell Culture
  • Topics in Botany
  • Advanced Field Botany
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Quantitative Analysis
  • College Physics 

Professional Resources for Forensic Botanists

Forensic botanists may seek professional recognition through membership in a professional association, such as:

The Botanical Society of America (BSA) is a membership society that promotes botany and the field of basic science as it relates to the uses of plants and their interactions with the biosphere.

The American Academy of Forensic Science is a professional organization that offers membership to promote professionalism, education, competency, integrity and collaboration in the forensic sciences.

Salary Expectations for Forensic Botanists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which classifies botanists under the category of zoologists and wildlife biologists, reported a mean annual salary of $57,430 as of May 2010, with the top 10 percent earning more than $93,450.

The American Institute of Biological Science reported that life scientists, including botanists, with less than one year of experience earned a median annual salary of $33,000, as of 2003 (the most recent information available). Life scientists with 30 or more years of experience earned a median annual salary of $108,000 during the same time.

Life scientists without supervisory experience earned a median annual salary of $48,000, and life scientists who supervised 10 or more employees earned a median annual salary of $126,500. Research managers earned a median annual salary of $139,000, laboratory directors earned $90,000, and intermediate researchers earned $50,250.

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