Extraordinary People

Why nature’s forensics are just as valuable as fingerprints and fibres

A tiny bit of pollen or soil on a shoe can be all it takes to track down a criminal

Catching criminals can be painstaking work for forensic scientists who have to analyse and scrutinise every fingerprint, clothing fibre and blood splatter.

But did you know that one of the biggest keys to solving crimes can be provided by nature itself?

Clues that helped crack some of the UK’s biggest cases and helped convict put Soham killer Ian Huntley, thanks to forensic ecologist and botanist Professor Patricia Wiltshire.

Professor Wiltshire has been integral in helping British police solve many high-profile cases but she’s not looking at bodies or manmade clues left behind at crime scenes.

Instead, she turns to nature and relies on pollen, plants and even fungi to help her unravel mysteries that might even leave forensic scientists stumped.

In Traces, her memoir that was published in 2019, she says: “Nowadays it is fashionable to say that we live in a surveillance society, but your movements can be tracked by more than cameras.”

Prof Wiltshire said something as mundane as a walk in woods can leave behind evidence someone was there, from soil on the soles of boots, a coat collecting spores and pollen just by brushing against a tree and even hair which can pick up trace material from twigs and leaves.

Credit: Blink Publishing

She said: “People may not realise it, but pollen and spores can tell us stuff that DNA and fingerprints simply can’t.

“Pollen isn’t easily washed away and it stays on people’s clothes and shoes. If you walk on soil or vegetation, you inevitably pick it up.”

Wiltshire has now worked with every police force in the UK and it’s her years of meticulous fieldwork that has helped crack cases.

Wiltshire has worked on more than 250 cases, including some of the most notorious of the last 25 years.
One of the biggest was the case of murdered schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002.

After the girls’ bodies were discovered in a ditch, Wiltshire was called upon to establish which path the killer had used. She analysed the regrowth of trampled plants which led to the crime scene and after a detailed search, one of Jessica’s hairs was found on a twig. After Ian Huntley was arrested for the murders, Wiltshire gave evidence at his trial and an hour later, Huntley decided to plead guilty.

“I like solving puzzles, and there’s always a puzzle,” Wiltshire said. “It’s quite nice when it’s all been to court and finished with, but I don’t really feel some great noble idea of putting criminals away. A puzzle comes along, I solve it and then move on to the next.

“Nature is unbelievably complicated. Every bit of research just shows more of its complexity, and I love that.”

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