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Frozen Plants Brought Back To Life 400 Years After Little Ice Age Can Grow, Reproduce

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Bryophytes uncovered by the retreating Teardrop Glacier on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. | University of Alberta

By Sarah C. P. Williams

A group of plants frozen inside Teardrop Glacier in the Canadian Arctic for more than 400 years still has the ability to grow and reproduce, scientist have discovered.

In 2007, researchers were collecting long-frozen plant samples from the receding edges of the glacier when they noticed some bryophytes—plants which include mosses and mosslike liverworts—sprouting new parts (as seen in the main image).

They dated a subset of the bryophytes and found that the plants ranged in age from 404 to 614 years old, confirming that were frozen during the Little Ice Age, a period of cooling lasting a few hundred years, which ended in the 19th century.

In the lab, the researchers were able to regrow bryophyte samples representing four different taxa from the glacier, they report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (inset).

The finding suggests that bryophytes are more resilient than was previously known, the authors say, and likely play a role in the early recolonization of areas revealed by glacier melt, such as those in the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic.

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ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science

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