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 landmark and “extraordinary” discovery and new study published in Nature this week reveal just how much the ice landscape has changed. 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. , 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. Typically, the area where the DNA was found is known only for minimal plants, the hare, and the musk ox, according to Nature.
“Reindeer shouldn’t have survived, according to paleontologists,” Wellerslev told Nature of the Animal magazine, living wild in the country’s west. “They shouldn’t have been around at that time.”
Mastodons, according to the San Diego Museum of Natural History, were massive Pleistocene mammals similar in size and characteristics to the modern-day 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 incredible 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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