What Is Palynology?by David M. Jarzen
Palynology is the study of plant pollen, spores and certain microscopic plankton organisms (collectively termed palynomorphs) in both living and fossil form. Botanists use living pollen and spores (actuopalynology) in the study of plant relationships and evolution, while geologists (palynologists) may use fossil pollen and spores (paleopalynology) to study past environments, stratigraphy (the analysis of strata or layered rock) historical geology and paleontology.
The oil industry is credited with demonstrating the usefulness of palynomorphs in the study of stratigraphic sequences of rocks and the potential for oil and gas exploration. Because palynomorphs are resistant to decomposition and are produced in great abundance, their recovery from rocks and sediments via special and careful chemical treatments is possible and provides scientists with information needed to describe plant life of past ages. By describing the sequence of selected palynomorphs through the rock layers of Earth, stratigraphers (scientists who study the rock layers of the earth) are able to correlate rocks of the same age and may therefore locate and correlate layers that contain oil or natural gas.
Palynomorphs recovered from the gut or intestinal tract of early humans, and those associated with artifacts (pots, tools, or other cultural objects) found at their grave sites have been used to understand the diets and hunting practices of these early people. For instance, the pollen and spores found in the feces recovered from the mummies of humans living seven thousand years ago, allowed scientists to describe the changes in diets through several generations of native people in northern Chile.
Melissopalynology is the study of pollen in honey, with the purpose of identifying the source plants used by bees in the production of honey. This is important to honey producers because honey produced by pollen and nectar from certain plants as mesquite, buckwheat, tupelo or citrus trees demand a higher price on the market than that produced by other plant sources. Some plants may produce nectar and pollen that is harmful to human health. A careful monitoring of the pollen types found in honey may identify these toxic sources and the honey produced may be kept out of the commercial market.
Palynology is a useful tool in many applications, including a survey of atmospheric pollen and spore production and dispersal (aerobiology), in the study of human allergies, the archaeological excavation of shipwrecks, and detailed analysis of animal diets. Entomopalynology is the study of pollen found on the body or in the gut of insects. It is useful for determining insect feeding and migratory habits, especially as it involves economically important insects (as the boll weevil, or earwigs). Forensic palynology, or the use of pollen analysis in the solving of crimes, is used by Crime Scene Investigators around the world.
Suggested additional reading:
Bryant, V.M. Jr. and S.A. Hall. 1993. Archaeological palynology in the United States: a critique. American Antiquity, volume 58, pages 416-421.
Jarzen, D.M. and McAllister, D.E. 1994. Eco-services: l. Pollination - love in the plant world benefits the whole world. Wildflower, North America's Magazine of Wild Flora, volume 10, number 3, pages 24-27.
Jarzen, D.M. & Nichols, D.J. 1996. Chapter 9 Pollen. In: Jansonius, J. & McGregor, D.C. (eds.) Palynology: principles and applications. American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists Foundation, volume 1, pages 261-291.