These tiny organic materials are most commonly used to identify past environmental climates (called paleoenvironmental reconstruction), and track changes in climate over a period of time ranging from seasons to millennia.Modern palynological studies often include all micro-fossils composed of highly resistant organic material called sporopollenin, which is produced by flowering plants and other biogenic organisms.Pollen grains are smooth, shiny, reticulate, and striated; they are spherical, oblate, and prolate; they come in single grains but also in clumps of two, three, four, and more.

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That diagram provides a picture of pollen input changes through time.

At Von Post's very first presentation of pollen diagrams, one of his colleagues asked how he knew for sure that some of the pollen wasn't created by distant forests, an issue that is being resolved today by a set of sophisticated models.

In terrestrial environments, pollen and spore deposits are likely to be disturbed by animal and human life, but in lakes, they are trapped in thin stratified layers on the bottom, mostly undisturbed by plant and animal life.

Palynologists put sediment core tools into lake deposits, and then they observe, identify and count the pollen in the soil brought up in those cores using an optical microscope at between 400-1000x magnification.

Pollen grains produced at higher elevations are more prone to be carried by the wind longer distances than those of plants closer to the ground.

As a result, scholars have come to recognize the potential of an overrepresentation of species such as pine trees, based on how efficient the plant is at getting its pollen distributed.Scholars can use studies from a large number of small lakes to give them insight into local variations.In addition, smaller lakes can be used to monitor local changes, such as an increase in ragweed pollen associated with Euro-American settlement, and the effects of runoff, erosion, weathering and soil development.Pollen is one of several types of plant residues which have been retrieved from archaeological sites, either clinging to the inside of pots, on the edges of stone tools or within archaeological features such as storage pits or living floors.Pollen from an archaeological site is assumed to reflect what people ate or grew, or used to build their homes or feed their animals, in addition to local climate change.The combination of pollen from an archaeological site and a nearby lake provides depth and richness of the paleoenvironmental reconstruction.