Friday, 19 December 2014
Catherine La Farge, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
The rapid retreat of glaciers and ice caps throughout the Canadian Arctic is exposing pristine vegetation preserved beneath cold-based ice. For the past half century this vegetation has been consistently reported as dead. This interpretation has been overturned by the successful re-growth of Little Ice Age (1550-1850 AD) bryophytes emerging from the Teardrop Glacier, Sverdrup Pass, Ellesmere Island (79° N) collected in 2009. Some populations showed regeneration in the field and lab experiments confirmed their capacity to regrow. The species richness of these subglacial populations is exceptional, comprising >62 species that represent 44% of the extant bryophyte flora of Sverdrup Pass. Cold-based glaciers are known to provide critical habitats for a variety of microbiota (i.e., fungi, algae, cyanobacteria, bacteria and viruses) in high latitude ecosystems. The regeneration of Little Ice Age bryophytes fundamentally expands the concept of biological refugia to land plants that was previously restricted to survival above and beyond glacial margins. Given this novel understanding of subglacial ecosystems, fieldwork is now being extended southward to plateau ice caps on Baffin Island, Nunavut, where ice retreat is exposing subglacial populations of greater antiquity (thousands to tens of thousands of radiocarbon years before present). Bryophytes by nature are totipotent (stem cell equivalency) and poikilohydric (desiccation tolerance), which facilitate their unique adaptation to extreme environments. Continuity of the Arctic bryophyte flora extends back through the Holocene to the late Tertiary [Beaufort Fm, 2-5 Ma], when the majority of taxa were the same, based on records spanning the archipelago from Ellesmere to Banks Island. This record contrasts with that of vascular plants, which have had a number of extinctions, necessitating recolonization of arctic populations from outside the region. The biological significance of a stable bryophyte element highlights their capacity, resilience and persistence throughout arctic climate fluctuations, suggesting they - like those entombed during the Little Ice Age - have survived glaciation in situ, frozen in time.