Be sure to read part one of Where in the World Is Snow Grass?
We continued the search for my little Arctic grasses in Naujaat (previously known as Repulse Bay), a small hamlet in Nunavut that is located directly on the Arctic Circle.
We discovered our first population of ice grass within hours of landing in the community. The plants were considerably larger than those of Arviat and showed more diversity in the habitats in which they were found.
But where was snow grass? Candidate specimens of snow grass from Canada are superficially similar to ice grass, and without a microscope, we were stuck relying on our hand lenses and general observations of plant form and habitat.
We found several plants with stems that grew semi-erect rather than sprawling out along the ground—a trait indicative of snow grass. However, the hand lens revealed what seemed to be typical ice-grass florets.
We also searched frost boils (upwellings of mud) out on the tundra, a habitat more suited to snow grass, but came away empty-handed. With growing doubts about the presence of snow grass in Canada, we left Naujaat for our final destination: the capital of Nunavut.
With only three collecting days in Iqaluit, we had to carefully plan which habitats we wanted to target. On the first day, we found several populations of ice grass in disturbed, wet sandy habitats in and around town. Plants were quite large with dense inflorescences (the flowering part of the plant), with nothing standing out as possible snow grass.
The next day, I (reluctantly) wrapped my arms around a researcher I had just met, as we hitched a ride down the Road to Nowhere on the backs of a couple of ATVs. We hiked across hilly tundra, scouring every snowbed and generally wet sandy habitat, but there was neither an ice grass nor snow grass to be found. How could this be?
With time running out, we spent our last day combing the shoreline of the bay just east of Apex, a village near Iqaluit. I was confident we would find more ice grass, at the very least. But as we hiked further and further into the bay, my confidence withered away. Alas, the time had come to head home to Ottawa.
What now? Probably a few long nights crying into a microscope trying to tell a grass from a grass. Luckily, I also have several loans from herbaria around the globe that have already begun to arrive. The loan from Svalbard, Norway, where ice grass and snow grass are morphologically distinct, should be especially invaluable.
I’ll be sequencing several DNA regions of these specimens to screen for genetic markers that can be used to separate the two species without a doubt. I’ll then be able to check for those markers in the specimens that I collected on my trip, as well as other North American and Greenlandic material.
Then, just maybe, we’ll finally be able to answer the question “Where in the world is snow grass?”