When you picture the arctic terrain, flowers are probably not the first things that come to mind. However, a recent study published in Nature has shown that there was a larger variety of plant diversity in the ancient arctic than previously believed. Ancient relatives of common flowers like honeysuckle, sunflowers, carnations, and chrysanthemums added to the diverse plant landscape with other well known plants like legumes.
Traditionally, ancient plant diversity was determined by looking at fossilized pollen, however this approach has several problems that the new study by Willerslev et. al. addressed. Looking only at pollen often gives biased results that tend towards plants that had very hardy pollen and exclude plants with more fragile pollen. To remedy this, the study combined the approaches of looking at fossilized pollen and DNA analysis. Analysis of plant content found in the stomachs of fossilized megafauna (like woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos), in fossilized fecal matter of these animals, and samples preserved in the permafrost soils shed new light on flora that lived in the arctic about 50,000 years ago.
Another issue with just using fossilized pollen to identify plants is that it is hard to pinpoint the exact taxonomy of a sample. Usually the genus is the most precise measure that can be recognized. With DNA sampling however, the taxonomy can be isolated down to the species – a method that has greatened the breadth of known diversity even further.
“It’s always been believed that the Arctic steppe was dominated by grasses and grass-like plants, and we find that’s not the case at all,” says Eline Lorenzen to NBC News. Lorenzen is a member of the study team and an evolutionary biologist at UC Berkeley. This study has given the scientific community a new idea of what the ancient arctic really looked like. This updated picture will help provide further insight into other aspects of the biology and ecology in the area long ago.
Willerslev, E., Davison, J., Moora, M., Zobel, M., Coissac, E., Edwards, M. E., … & Taberlet, P. (2014). Fifty thousand years of Arctic vegetation and megafaunal diet. Nature, 506(7486), 47-51.
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