The Last “W”: Why Our Flora Is Important (and Urgently Needed)

This is the fifth post in a five-part series on Arctic flora research at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Join us as museum researcher Paul Sokoloff introduces the fieldwork and lab work involved in writing a new flora of the North American Arctic.

Six blooms on a stem of early coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida).

Early coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida) is a species of orchid that was unknown in the western Arctic islands prior to the museum's fieldwork in 2008. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Four posts ago, I introduced the Canadian Museum of Nature’s big botanical project: to write a completely new Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska. I’ve since written about the thrill of fieldwork, the vast holdings of the National Herbarium of Canada, and the wonders of using DNA technology to help us classify and name the plants of the Arctic. However, despite now knowing how we classify plants in a systematic manner, you may be wondering, why? Surely it doesn’t really matter if there are 33 or 34 species of grasses on Victoria Island, right?

The truth is that systematics (the classification of living organisms) and taxonomy (the naming of those groups) are central to understanding both the biology of a single species and the ecosystem it belongs to.

The North American Arctic ecozone is a diverse and interconnected web of ecosystems spread throughout the North’s varied habitats. This unique region contains some plant species found nowhere else on the planet. Collecting and naming the plant species that we find up there allows us to quantify biodiversity and record that data for future generations to use.

Indeed, for the last three years, each time we have traveled to the North we have discovered a species new to Canada, the Arctic, or the island we are working on. The more fieldwork we do, the more specimens we bring back, and the collection we maintain grows and becomes even more useful for future research.

Six people sit on tundra with their tents and a hill visible in the background.

The 2010 Botany expedition. Museum researchers Dr. Lynn Gillespie, Dr. Jeff Saarela, Jennifer Doubt, Roger Bull, Paul Sokoloff and local guide Gary Okheena on a break after a long day of work. Researchers who are passionate about the plants they study and local community members who are knowledgeable about the land around them make a very effective team. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

Adding urgency to our work is the growing environmental threat to the Arctic. Northern development and rapid landscape alteration from climate change are having an impact on species in the North and the communities that rely on them. And while the museum has been collecting plants in the Arctic for nearly 100 years, vast tracts of the Arctic remain unexplored by botanists.

Through our own travels to the field, and engagement with other scientists and the people who live and work in the Arctic, we are working towards a comprehensive snapshot on the state of Arctic flora now. This baseline data is not only crucial to the discovery of new and rare species, but will serve as a point of reference for studies on how climate change will affect the vegetation of the Arctic.

A rolling, treeless landscape with a river in the background, under a cloudy sky.

The tundra on Victoria Island, Northwest Territories. Here above the tree line, portions of the soil remain frozen all year round. Understanding the current distribution and status of plant species across the North is essential for understanding how they may be affected by climate change. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

So as we continue to write the flora we’ll keep travelling, looking at the ground beneath our feet, looking under microscopes and working in labs. This will continue to add to our knowledge on the plants of North America’s most northern ecosystem: how they relate to one another, where they occur and how to identify them. This flora will be our legacy for future Arctic botanists, when it’s their turn to pick up the mantle of exploration and discovery.

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