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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.