The Month of Arctic Onions and Western Birch: Arctic Botany 2014

Our botany team returns from a four-week expedition along the Coppermine River in Nunavut. Links to Paul’s previous articles about the Arctic expedition appear at the end of this article.

The long-haul and milk-run flights that dominate return voyages from Arctic adventure provide a lot of time to reflect on the past month spent collecting plants along the Coppermine River. So here I am, blogging at cruising altitude (OK, I’ll admit it: I finished the books I brought with me and am itching for something to do).

A lichen specimen on a rock.

Lichens such as this tumbleweed-like Masonhalea richardsonii made up a large part of our haul this year. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

By the numbers, our expedition from the treeline to the Arctic coast was a resounding success: we collected nearly 1400 vascular plant, moss, lichen and algae specimens—new records for each of the four divisions of the National Herbarium of Canada. Fun for the whole photosynthetic family!

We were particularly struck with a bit of moss and lichen madness. While we always collect a few of these minuscule organisms each trip, this year we were hauling them in by the bag-load in an effort to better learn about these important components of all Arctic ecosystems.

Lush mosses growing near rock.

Mosses (Bryum sp. and Myurella julacea) growing under an overhang in Bloody Falls Territorial Park. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Over the next few months, we will also examine the vascular-plant specimens closely, comparing them with the literature back at the lab and the specimens already in the museum’s collections to determine and confirm their identity. That said, many times over the past month, there were many “wow” moments, times when we came across a plant and knew that this species was significant.

Hairy butterwort growing among other plants near the river.

Easily missed, the miniscule hairy butterwort (Pinguicula villosa) is one of many range extensions we added to the flora of Nunavut. Previously, these plant species were known only from further south along the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories. Our collections on this trip indicate that the species extends well into the Arctic tundra in western Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The two most interesting discoveries for us were the chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and western birch (Betula occidentalis)—boreal species common below the treeline—that we found growing on the tundra along the northern Coppermine.

View of the river with chives (Allium schoenoprasum) in the foreground.

We still have to check the scientific literature, but it looks likely that these chives comprise the first wild onion reported for Nunavut. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

A leafy branch of western birch (Betula occidentalis).

The known range of western birch has been extended north from Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories to western Nunavut, thanks to our finds along the Coppermine River. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

These finds represent significant range extensions for both species; our collections now push further north the boundary limit of all known specimens of these plants, and firmly place them within the scope of the Arctic Flora of Canada and Alaska project.

Other boreal range extensions, such as twinflower (Linnaea borealis) and hairy butterwort (Pinguicula villosa), confirm our initial suspicions that the Coppermine River valley, and its transition from trees to tundra, would harbour a biodiversity rarely seen in the low Arctic.

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis) in bloom.

We found twinflower growing along a few south-facing cliffs well into the Arctic portion of the Coppermine River valley. These cliffs are the first to thaw in the spring, and receive more direct sunlight than any other part of the Arctic. This warmer microclimate hosts many species that are otherwise unable to live on the tundra. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Of course, some of our most interesting collections are from the hardy white spruce trees. From sizable interconnected groves to lone sentinels steadfastly enduring north of the treeline, Picea glauca dominates the landscape to the south of Bloody Falls Territorial Park.

A few white spruce (Picea glauca) with tents in the background.

White spruce trees growing in our camp near the Coppermine River. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

You may recall from my first article about this trip that we (naively) hoped to collect samples from the trees featured in photographs from the Canadian Arctic Expedition’s camp along the river 100 years ago.

A small shelter beside a few trees.

Taken in February 1915, this photo shows the campsite of the Canadian Arctic Expedition at the northernmost spruce trees along the Coppermine River. Image: Fritz Johansen © Canadian Museum of History

As you can see from this photograph of Sandstone Rapids along the Coppermine River, if we had decided to find those exact trees using only the historical photo for reference, we’d still be there.

The Sandstone Rapids of the Coppermine River.

Sandstone Rapids, a well-known section of the Coppermine River, is a challenge relished by the many paddlers who shoot the river each year. It also nicely illustrates the transition between trees and tundra common to this stretch of the sub-Arctic. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Previous Instalments

This entry was posted in Arctic, Collections, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae, Species Discovery and Change and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Month of Arctic Onions and Western Birch: Arctic Botany 2014

  1. Pingback: Plants to Papers | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

  2. Pingback: Snapshots of (Natural) History | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

  3. Pingback: Plants 2 Papers: The Sequel | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

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