Northern Greenland is known as “the land of the midnight sun and dog sledding” as a polar desert with huge icebergs. But that wasn’t always the case – 2 million years ago it was “a forested ecosystem unlike any other found on Earth today”.
A historic and “extraordinary” finding and a new study published this week in Nature reveal just how much the icy landscape has changed. Researchers found 2 million-year-old DNA — the oldest ever discovered — buried in clay and quartz sediment preserved in permafrost at the northernmost tip of Greenland.
“Finally a new chapter of an extra million years of history has been opened and for the first time we can look directly at the DNA of an ecosystem from the past that goes so far back in time,” says one of the researchers, Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge. , according to a press release. “DNA can degrade quickly, but we’ve shown that under the right conditions, we can now go further back in time than anyone could have imagined.”
Willerslev, along with Kurt H. Kjær of the University of Copenhagen, discovered 41 samples, each only a few millionths of a millimeter long, but containing an invaluable amount of information. Those little monsters revealed that the freezer area was once the old home for manyplants and microorganisms than there are today, including hares and lemmings.
One of the most surprising discoveries, however, were traces of animals that were thought to have never been in the country at all: reindeer and mastodons. The area where the DNA was found is usually only known from minimal plants, hare and musk ox, according to Nature.
“In the opinion of paleontologists, reindeer should not have survived,” Willerslev told Nature of the animal, which lives in the wild in the west of the country. “They shouldn’t even exist at that point.”
Mastodons, according to the San Diego Natural History Museum, were huge Ice Age mammals similar in size and features to the modern elephant. The animals, which became extinct 13,000 years ago, were thought to live mainly in North and Central America.
Researchers also found evidence that today’s relatively empty environment was once a “forested ecosystem unlike any other on Earth,” according to Nature, filled with poplars, spruces and yews that don’t normally grow that far north.
“No one would have predicted this ecosystem in the northright now,” said Willerslev.
Additional findings from horseshoe crab and green algae support the scientists’ belief that northern Greenland’s climate was warmer 2 million years ago than it is today.
Incredible as their findings were, researchers are just as excited about what it could mean in future studies using ancient DNA.
“Comparable detailed DNA records of flora and vertebrates may survive in other places,” the study says. “If restored, these would enhance our understanding of the variability of climate and biotic interactions during the warmer Early Pleistocene epochs in the high Arctic.”