Four-Hundred-Year-Old Moss Stuck Under a Glacier Springs Back to Life
by Andreanna Wright, age 13
Researchers recently revived a 400-year-old moss from a melting glacier in the High Canadian Arctic. Scientists thought that the old plants living under the glacier were all dead. All new growth in the gap created by the receding glacier was assumed to be by modern plants. They discovered these plants were in fact alive and spreading spores. Theses plants regrew in the laboratory after being preserved for hundreds of years. All new growth in the gap created by the receding glacier was assumed to be by modern plants.
Biologist Catherine La Farge and her team used radiocarbon dating to confirm that the moss was between 400 and 600 years old, dating back to the Little Ice Age during the period between 1550 to 1850. Radiocarbon dating allows scientists to calculate the approximate age of ancient objects containing carbon. Despite this new discovery, one more experiment had to be done to find out how the moss continued to reproduce.
The researchers selected 24 samples from the glacier; seven of those samples produced 11 cultures. The 11 cultures successfully reproduced four new species, including the Aulacomnium turgidum moss and the Distichum capillaceum moss. These two plants played an important role in the establishment and maintenance of the Northern hemisphere.
Moss is a bryophyte. It can thrive in both hot and cold temperatures. Its cells can reprogram to create an entirely new copy of the plant, similar to stem cells. It usually grows in damp, shady places and is one of the most ancient plants in the world. Moss spreads using spores instead of seeds. Since this particular moss was thriving in a melting glacier, it was able to live in this damp environment for hundreds of years.
After the experiment, biologist Catherine La Farge stated: “We know that bryophytes can remain dormant for many years and then are reactivated, but nobody expected them to rejuvenate after nearly 400 years beneath a glacier.”
This research is important because it helps us recognize our own polar ecosystem and familiarize us with its environment.