Southern Tundra

One would hardly consider the southern half of North America to be a tundra-like environment but even so, some tundra plants exist there today...

Up until about 11,000 years ago, much of North America was covered in massive glaciers that were, in some places, upwards of a mile thick. These colossal ice sheets scoured the land over millennia as they advanced and retreated throughout the Pleistocene. Where they covered the land, nothing except some mosses survived. A vast majority of plants were either wiped out or were forced to survive in what are referred to as glacial refugia.

Refugia are ice free areas either within the range of the ice sheets, such as mountain tops, or areas just outside of the ice sheets. Many of North America's plant species took refuge to the south of the glaciers in what is now the Appalachian Mountains. Echos of these plant communities still exist in the southern US today. Some of which are quite isolated from the current distribution of their species. These plant communities are considered disjunct and coming across them is like seeing back in time.

One such plant is the three-toothed cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata). This species is mainly found in northern Canada and Greenland and is considered a tundra species. It needs cold temperatures and is easily out competed in all but the most hostile environments. Why then can you find this lovely cinquefoil growing as far south as Georgia?

The answer are mountains. A combination of high elevation, punishing winds, and lower than average temperatures, means that the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains have more in common with the tundras found much farther north on the continent. As a result of these conditions, plants like S. tridentata have been able to survive into the present while the majority of their tundra associates migrated north with the retreat of the glaciers.

Because of their isolated existence in the Appalachians, S. tridentata is considered endangered in many southern states. Being able to see this plant without having to visit the tundra is quite a unique and humbling experience. It is amazing to consider the series of events that, over thousands of years, have caused this species to end up living on top of these mountains. It is one of those things that one must really stop and mull over for a bit in order to fully appreciate.

Further Reading:…/j.1365-2699.1998.…/abstract