Known as the “Land of the Midnight Sun and Dog Sledding”, North Greenland is an arctic desert with massive icebergs. But that wasn’t always the case—two million years ago, it was “a forest ecosystem unlike any now on Earth.”
A historical and “extraordinary” discovery and a New study A publication in Nature this week reveals just how changing the glacier landscape is. Researchers have found 2-million-year-old DNA – the oldest ever discovered – buried in clay and quartz deposits preserved in the permafrost in far north Greenland.
“Finally a new chapter has been opened spanning an additional million years of history and for the first time we can look directly at the DNA of an ancient ecosystem going back so long ago,” said one of the researchers, Eske Willerslev from the University of Cambridge. He said in a press release. “DNA can degrade quickly but we have shown that, under the right conditions, we can now go back in time further than anyone could have imagined.”
Willerslev, with Kurt H. Kjær of the University of Copenhagen, discovered 41 specimens, each only a few millionths of a millimeter, but with an invaluable amount of information. Those small samples revealed that the freezing area was once home to manyand plants and microorganisms that exist today, including hares and lemongrass.
One of the most surprising finds, however, were traces of animals he thought had never been in the country – reindeer and industrial. The area where the DNA was found is usually only known to small grouse, hare and musk ox, according to nature.
Wellerslev told Nature of the Animal magazine unilateral contract in the west of the country. “They shouldn’t have been around at that time.”
According to Mastodons San Diego Museum of Natural HistoryThey were large mammals of the Pleistocene similar in size and characteristics to the modern elephant. The animals, which became extinct 13,000 years ago, were thought to live mostly across North and Central America.
The researchers also found evidence that today’s relatively empty environment was once “a forested ecosystem unlike any now on Earth,” according to Nature, filled with poplars, fir and yew trees that don’t typically grow farther north.
“Nobody would have expected this ecosystem in the NorthAt this time, Willerslev said.
Additional findings of horseshoe crabs and green algae support scientists’ belief that the climate of northern Greenland two million years ago was much warmer than it is today.
As amazing as their findings are, the researchers are just as excited about what this could mean in future studies using ancient DNA.
“Similarly detailed DNA records for plants and vertebrates may survive elsewhere,” the study says. “If these objects recover, they will advance our understanding of climate variability and biotic interactions during the warmer early Pleistocene epochs across the high Arctic.”
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