When we had our first Comparative Wood Anatomy class a few weeks ago, little had we anticipated the complexity of structures we were about to deal with. Wood had never exhibited itself than being more than having various colours and patters that enabled one to differentiate between mahogany and beech! Apart from that, we knew a thing or two about annual growth rings that helped predict the tree’s age and study the climate-change of a particular area over the course of the years the tree had been living. And we knew how fossilized remains of trees helped in understanding the weather and climatic patterns over the course of several thousands of years.
When the real study of wood anatomy began, we were amazed by the fascinating world of secrets it contained. As we systematically moved from tree growth and wood formation to xylotomy, then to dissecting in multiple planes and learning how to differentiate the different kinds of ducts, canals, tracheids, pits, borders, rays etc., we started to realize that all of this had a much greater use to humanity apart from letting us identify the genus where from it originated and to differentiate gymnosperm and angiosperm wood.
Comparative wood anatomy is an important part of forensic biology. Just like DNA fingerprinting, wood in the form of splinters, tools, ladders, etc., can help solve crimes just as it has been proved on many instances where traditional methods have failed. Plant materials like pollen and spores are also extensively used to solve crimes. For this post, I shall limit myself to wood anatomy.
Our anatomy professor explained to us how he had been part of a forensic investigation team a few years ago and how the study of wood anatomy had helped nab a murderer. It so happened that a young couple were brutally murdered in their houseboat at a hill station in the northern fringes of my country some years ago. Wooden splinters were found in their body. Study of the wood lead the investigation team to a mill nearby which used the particular type of wood. The owner was found as to have visited the couple on various occasions. He was arrested and he later confessed to killing the couple with a wooden instrument.
Perhaps the most famous case concerning the solving of a crime by comparative wood anatomy was the Lindbergh Case of the early 1930’s where anatomist Arthur Koehler tracked down the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh Jr. with the help of a wooden ladder left behind at the crime scene. On extensive investigation it was found that one of the rails of the ladder had been made from a missing floor board of the kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann’s house. Hauptmann was later sentenced to death.
The point of this article was to encompass forensics and biology and will be posted as more of a literary than a scientific article since it’s main idea is to function as a writer’s resource. Hope it was of help.