Sowing Seeds

Scientists are champions at formulating and answering questions, and the scientific method is a diligent, orderly way to do just that. In the process, data is generated using the most appropriate methods, a foundation of knowledge emerges, and refined information lives on in an extensive scientific literature and data bases.

Wild lupines from Québec

Wild lupines from Québec

Most people think of numbers, maps and illustrations when they think about data. However, natural history museums provide scientific data in the form of a diverse, preserved collection of specimens and any associated information that was part of scientific study. Knowing how a study was done and having access to data allows for more study and refinement of knowledge. The answers to scientific questions are never final and are often re-examined based on new information and new methods.

That was how it worked for the 10,000 year old lupine seeds (Lupinus arcticus) that were germinated in 1960 by botanists at the Canadian Museum of Nature. This botanical surprise occurred after seeds were discovered in ancient animal burrows by a placer gold miner in the Yukon, and then studied by paleobiologist Dr. Richard Harington. The discovery destroyed the previous record for old seed germination by at least 8,000 years; (Date Palm seeds, Phoenix dactylifera, from the Dead Sea) . These findings were as exciting as they were controversial; the date attributed to the seeds was derived from inferences about sediments and other fossil specimens in the area, the best methods before accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), a current, precise technique.

The results were also not satisfying to Dr. Grant Zazula, the Territorial Paleontologist for the Yukon. He decided to team up with Dr. Harington, Alice Telka, and Dr. Fiona Brock of Oxford University to investigate further. The team used AMS radiocarbon dating and determined that the original fossil material used to date the seeds was about 23,000 years old (a finer point than, more than10,000 years), and that the seeds were about 50 years old; in other words contemporary seeds contaminated an ancient burrow after miners had exposed it . With these findings, the earlier results were corrected. However, the search for ancient, viable seeds continues and we all should have a renewed respect for the agents of seed dispersal, like busy rodent populations.

Researchers at natural history museums make many discoveries each year, often within a network of contacts, associates and colleagues, and during extensive time in the field. By publishing results and keeping careful records, an accurate documentation of our natural history continues to take shape.

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