Up in the northern reaches of the Canadian Arctic, researchers have discovered that a category of plants buried by the Teardrop glacier hundreds of years ago is alive and well, despite having been frozen for centuries. Scientists from the University of Alberta found samples of 400-year-old plants known as bryophytes (plants like moss and liverworts that lack vascular tissue for transporting liquids), and thanks to the rapid recession of the glacier, which is uncovering land that had previously been frozen. "We ended up walking along the edge of the glacier margin and we saw these huge populations coming out from underneath the glacier that seemed to have a greenish tint," said Catherine La Farge, lead author of the study, to the BBC News.
Surprisingly enough, those bryophytes showed new growth — the glacier had preserved the plants' structure, and even those that had been uncovered for less than a year were already showing signs of regeneration. This was a fairly shocking discovery to the researchers; while it was already known that bryophytes could survive cold arctic winters, there was no expectation that they'd be able to regrow after being buried under a glacier. "When we looked at them in detail and brought them to the lab, I could see some of the stems actually had new growth of green lateral branches, and that said to me that these guys are regenerating in the field, and that blew my mind," said Dr. La Farge.
The researchers believe that the hardiness and resiliency of the bryophyte is a contributor to the establishment of polar ecosystems, and they hope to learn even more from the areas recently uncovered by the glacier's melt. "It's a whole world of what's coming out from underneath the glaciers that really needs to be studied," Dr. La Farge said. "The glaciers are disappearing pretty fast — they're going to expose all this terrestrial vegetation, and that's going to have a big impact."