Diatoms in Drowning Victims

Forensic investigations have become more complex since the discovery of DNA analysis. When a case needs to be solved, all surfaces of a crime scene become viable pieces of evidence. The human body, however, holds the most answers to case that involves a death. Whether it is a murder or a natural fatality, investigators use blood, tissue, and bone to find out what may have contributed to the death. Even small changes to the body can lead a forensic specialist to proper evidence. Many times, bodies are found in the water.

This environment affects the body in significant ways. A specialist can tell if a person was a victim of drowning or was placed in the water after being killed.


Diatoms are a common form of phytoplankton, and are found in most bodies of water. They make their way into the human body, and can be identified. Diatoms have transparent cell walls consisting of silicon dioxide and a little bit of water. They are unicellular and can exist alone or in colonies. They often vary in shape, taking the form of ribbons, filaments, fans, or stars. This contributor of the food chain is thought to have been around since the Jurassic period. Diatoms are described as having a “shell” around their exterior. This is referred to as a frustule. Diatom types are unique to varying bodies of water. This helps investigators know where a body has been if it gets moved after a drowning.

The Evidence 

Diatoms from the water make their way into the lungs of drowning victims. They are inhaled into the body and make their way through the bloodstream rather quickly. This is extremely important in death investigations, as other signs of drowning may not be available. Diatoms can conglomerate in many areas of the human body once they enter the bloodstream. While they can make their way to the internal organs, they are usually found most often in two places. The lungs and the bone marrow of long bones are the first places that an examiner looks for diatoms. The femur is a common bone used for these investigations. A bathtub drowning would not show any signs of diatoms, as the water is treated. Suspects can also be linked to the victim by the discovery of diatoms on their clothing. Shoes worn down by a muddy lakeshore, for example, may show signs of diatoms that match those found in the victim’s body.

The Conclusion

When an investigator is trying to make a decision on the cause of death, they are going to first look for the diatoms. If a body is found in water, this is a common thing to do. There may, however, be other signs of injury that point to something other than drowning. In these cases they can determine if the body was disposed of in the water after the crime. The varying diatoms are so unique, that an investigator would be able to tell if a person drowned in one body of water, and was moved to another body of water after the fact. Any diatoms found in the body are compared to water sources in the area.

Investigations of victims found in water can have many outcomes. The presence of diatoms can help to narrow down the cause of death, immensely. A victim that died of other causes should not have diatoms in their system. A person must be breathing to inhale the diatoms. Forensic investigations have come a long way in recent years.


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