Ancient Plant Fossil Records Show — ScienceDaily

The heady aroma of magnolia blossoms and lotus blossoms might have invaded your nostrils if you had walked 56 million years ago through the verdant forest that covered Canada’s northernmost islands.

Now blanketed in ice and snow, Nunavut’s present-day Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands were once home to vibrant temperate forest, according to fossil research just released by scientists at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) .

“It is very surprising how similar these ancient polar forests were to some of our modern forests. I have identified fossil plants related to many modern temperate trees: birches, alders, elms – even plants belonging to the family grapes. Some of the fossils are related to trees now only found in East Asia,” said paleobotanist Christopher West, a recent USask PhD graduate.

“The presence of these forests gives us an idea of ​​what could happen over long periods of time if our modern climate continues to warm, and also how forest ecosystems responded to greenhouse climates in the distant past. “West said.

West examined over 5,000 fossil samples to develop the only comprehensive fossil plant analysis ever undertaken in the Canadian Arctic.

“This research is the cumulative effort of nearly 40 years of work on northern Canadian fossil plants undertaken by me and my students, including 20 field seasons on Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands,” said said American geologist Jim Basinger, who co-supervised the work with David Greenwood, assistant professor of geology at USask and professor of biology at Brandon University.

The results published today in the journal Paleontographic B include detailed identifications and descriptions of 83 plant types from high Arctic latitudes in Canada during the Early Eocene, about 56 million years ago.

“We won’t see a return to a forested polar region in our lifetimes, but it’s important to remember that we humans have become agents of climate change, and our global warming will have potentially dramatic effects on our ecosystems. modern,” says West.

While the Earth was considerably warmer during the early Eocene, the continents were mostly located where they are now, and northern latitudes would have had long periods of darkness. Despite the almost total lack of light, the forests persisted, probably because of the hot weather.

“If we are able to understand how ecosystems responded to global warming long ago, we may be able to better predict how our own modern ecosystems will respond to our own rapidly warming climate,” West said. “This research will also help climate modellers as they use data from the past to better understand our own climate.”

The next steps in the research are to examine Axel Heiberg Island fossils from a slightly younger vintage – around 45 million years old – to better understand the ancient impacts of this climate change.

The research has been funded by many organizations over the decades, primarily through separate Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grants for Basinger and Greenwood, an NSERC Alexander Graham Bell Doctoral Fellowship for the West, the Polar Continental Shelf Program and the federal Northern Scientific Training Program.

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Material provided by The University of Saskatchewan. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.