Canadian Museum of Nature

Canadian Museum of Nature

February 27, 2017 13:15 ET

New study by Canadian Museum of Nature documents rich plant diversity along Nunavut's Coppermine River

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwired - Feb. 27, 2017) - Botanists from the Canadian Museum of Nature have established a new baseline for plant species from the Coppermine River region in mainland Nunavut - an area where the treeline reaches its northern limit.

The team has recorded 300 vascular plant species from a 1,200 sq. km stretch along the River. The findings, including a comprehensive checklist, have been published in PeerJ, an open-access, online journal. The tally-which includes plants ranging from grasses and sedges, to shrubby willows, to spruce trees-marks a 36% increase over the 190 species previously recorded by naturalists and other explorers along the Coppermine over the past 200 years.

The results were determined following analysis of about 1,200 collections of plants acquired during the team's field expedition along the Coppermine in July 2014.

"These results show that there is still much to learn about plant diversity in the Arctic, and it also demonstrates what can be achieved when scientists with expertise in plant systematics can get on the ground, and complete a proper survey," explains Dr. Jeff Saarela, museum botanist and lead author of the paper.

Saarela and his two colleagues, Paul Sokoloff and Roger Bull, had targeted the Coppermine because it transitions from boreal forest in the south, where the treeline ends, to a tundra habitat leading to the coast. They explored the Coppermine region from three base camps: one near the treeline, another along the river where tundra predominated, and a final site near the coastal community of Kugluktuk, where they surveyed in the new Kugluk/Bloody Falls Territorial Park.

"We selected the Coppermine partly because we wanted to get a baseline record of what's there now, since distribution of species may change with a warming climate. These changes are likely to be first noticed near the treeline," says Saarela. "The results show a very rich floral diversity,

Of the hundreds of species found, seven were new records for mainland Nunavut, and 14 species had never been recorded in the territory. Fifty-six species represented range extensions, including new northern geographical range limits for many of them.

Two of the the discoveries new to the territory were the chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and western birch (Betula occidentalis). These boreal species, common below the treeline, were found growing on the tundra along the northern Coppermine. Other boreal range extensions, such as those for twinflower and hairy butterwort, confirmed the team's initial suspicions that the Coppermine River valley, and its transition from trees to tundra, would harbour a biodiversity rarely seen in the low Arctic.

Overall, the Coppermine study adds to a growing inventory by Saarela and museum collegues for the distribution of vascular plants across Canada's Arctic. The data is part of an ambitious museum-led project to create an updated online flora, or scientific reference, for the estimated 800 species of vascular plants in the Canadian Arctic and northern Alaska.

To achieve this, museum botanists are combing through records in museum collections and published references, and then filling in the gaps with fieldwork from poorly explored areas of the Arctic. Previous field expeditions have led to updated inventories of plant species on Victoria Island, in the Northwest Territories' Tuktut Nogait National Park and the Hornaday River, and along the Soper River in southern Baffin Island. A July 2017 expedition will see Paul Sokoloff and museum lichenologist Dr. Troy McMullin exploring Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic.

About the Canadian Museum of Nature:

The Canadian Museum of Nature is Canada's national museum of natural history and natural sciences. The museum provides evidence-based insights, inspiring experiences and meaningful engagement with nature's past, present and future. It achieves this through scientific research, a 14.6 million specimen collection, education programs, signature and travelling exhibitions, and a dynamic web site, nature.ca.

Contact Information

  • Dan Smythe
    Media Relations
    Canadian Museum of Nature
    613-566-4781; 613-698-9253 (cell)
    dsmythe@mus-nature.ca