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Nature Nearby: The sneezes, my friend, are ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’

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Posted on: April 14, 2022


About 140 million years ago, dinosaurs were wandering around the world. About the same time, the first flowering plants appeared. Those beautiful plants introduced one of our not-so-favorite springtime experiences — pollen.  

This made me wonder: Did dinosaurs sneeze?

I’ll come back to that question in a bit; let’s stick with the pollen for now. Although mosses (which are still abundantly hanging around) preceded flowering plants, mosses simply spread themselves by producing spores. While spores may elicit a sneeze reaction from some of us, I think I’d have to hand it to the angiosperms  — the flowering plants — for their skill at spreading their youngins-to-be.

There are over 400,000 species of flowering plants, and they developed pollen to ensure their survival. Being naturally ambitious, each flower can produce thousands of grains of pollen. And being even more ambitious, these plants enlisted the aid of wind, insects and furry critters to help disseminate the pollen.

Although not all trees are angiosperms, pollen-producing oaks are one of the major sources of sneezes in our area. These oaks also adorn our cars and outdoor furnishings with their prolific, yellowish to light-green pollen. Oak pollen adheres to my outside-loving dog, who, upon his return, obligingly sprinkles the pollen inside our house — thus bringing the sneezes inside. 

While I’ve primarily focused on the sneeze-producing aspect of pollen, which can be a real pain for those of us who are reactive, I would be seriously remiss if I didn’t address its role in criminal investigations and in sciences like paleontology. 

The presence of specific pollen on a perpetrator or victim, or at a crime scene, may help advance a case. The 2015 Baby Doe case in Massachusetts is a famous example of using pollen identification; an analysis of the pollen found clinging to a murdered toddler’s hair and clothing suggested that she was a local, which helped police limit their search and eventually identify the girl and her murderers. Pollen analysis has also been used in smuggling cases, as specific types of pollen can often be traced to where they originated. However, its use in U.S. criminal cases has been limited, due in part to the cost and time required, the small number of people trained in the field of palynology (the study of pollen and spores), and the lack of an automated data system to identify the regional differences among pollen. In contrast, countries like New Zealand and Britain have embraced and accepted the use of forensic palynology to a significant degree.

Paleontologists use fossilized pollen found on an also-fossilized critter to determine the age, climate and location of the critter at the time of its demise (paleopalynology). And analyzing fossilized pollen from various epochs can give insight into evolution and climate shifts.

In February, scientists discovered fossil evidence that sauropods, like the Astrodons that once roamed Maryland, suffered from respiratory illness — the earliest example we have of non-avians to suffer from avian-style infections. They very likely sneezed. 

However, paleopalynology hasn’t yet figured out if Astrodons and their kin developed allergies to pollen. As I sniffle and snort my way through this springing spring, I’m glad I wasn’t around way back then to say gesundheit to Dolly, the recently diagnosed diplodocid. 



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