Evidence from the oldest DNA ever analyzed indicates that northern Greenland used to be a lush wonderland where mastodons, reindeer, geese, and hares once lived among a wide array of trees and other greenery. Greenland’s ecosystem surprise was reported in the journal Science in December 2022.
Why is ancient Greenland’s ecosystem such a surprise?
Today, Greenland’s ecosystem is far less varied thanks to its extreme Arctic climate. While you will find moss, lichen, small trees, and bushes in the tundra, it’s still largely considered an Arctic desert.
According to Eske Willerslev, a paleogeneticist at the University of Cambridge and a co-author of the study,
“No one would have predicted an ecosystem like this. Some species you find further south in Greenland, but a number you don’t find in the Arctic at all. It’s an ecosystem with no analog in the present day.”
According to Science (cited below), the insights into Greenland’s ancient past “come from the oldest DNA ever recovered: 2-million-year-old snippets of genetic material from more than 100 kinds of animals and plants, extracted from buried sediments.”
So not only is the information about Greenland’s ecosystem special, but the ability to use short and partially decayed DNA from millions of years ago is an exciting development.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Beyond evidence of reindeer, geese and one mastodon, [the researchers] also found signs of marine species, including horseshoe crabs and green algae. In this era of the island’s geologic history, temperatures were around 18 to 31 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they are in Greenland today.”
Needless to say, scientists are excited about the finds.
“I wouldn’t have, in a million years, expected to find mastodons in northern Greenland,” said Love Dalen, a paleogeneticist at Stockholm University in Sweden.
“It feels almost magical to be able to infer such a complete picture of an ancient ecosystem from tiny fragments of preserved DNA,” said Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. — WTF fun facts