Germinating a Seed After 32,000 Years

What you are looking at are plants that were grown from seeds buried in permafrost for nearly 32,000 years. The seeds were discovered on the banks of the Kolyma River in Siberia. The river is constantly eroding into the permafrost and uncovering frozen Pleistocene relics. Upon their discovery, researchers took the seeds and did the unthinkable - they grew them into adult plants. To date, this is the oldest resurrected plant material. 

The key to their extreme longevity lies in the permafrost. They were found inside the frozen burrow of an Arctic ground squirrel. The state of the burrow suggests that everything froze quite rapidly. As such, the seeds remained in a state of suspended animation for 32,000 years. This is not the first time viable plant materials have been recovered from Pleistocene permafrost. Spores, mosses, as well as seeds of other flowering plants have been rejuvenated to some degree in the past but none of these were grown to maturity. 

Using micropropagation techniques coupled with tissue cultures, researchers were able to grow and flower the 32,000 year old seeds. What they discovered was that these seeds belonged to a plant that can still be found in the Arctic today. It is a small species in the family Caryophyllaceae called Silene stenophylla. However, there were some interesting differences. 

As it turns out, the seeds taken from the burrow proved to be a phenotype quite
distinct from extant S. stenophylla populations. For instance, their flowers were thinner and less dissected than extant populations. Also, whereas the flowers of extant populations are all bisexual, individuals grown from the ancient seeds first produced only female flowers followed by fewer bisexual flowers towards the end of their blooming period.Though there are many possible reasons for this, it certainly hints at the different environmental parameters faced by this species through time. What's more, such findings allow us a unique window into the world of seed dormancy. Researchers are now looking at such cases to better inform how we can preserve seeds for longer periods of time. 

Photo Credit: Svetlana Yashinaa, Stanislav Gubin, Stanislav Maksimovich, Alexandra Yashina, Edith Gakhova, and David Gilichinsky

Further Reading: [1]

Osage Orange

As a kid I used to get a kick out of a couple trees without ever giving any thought towards what it was. My friend's neighbor had a some Osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera) growing at the end of his driveway. Their houses were situated atop a large hill and the road was pretty much a straight drop down into a small river valley. After school on fall afternoons, we would hang out in my friends front yard and watch as the large "hedge apples" would fall from the tree, bounce off the hood of his neighbor's car (why he insisted on parking there is beyond me) and go rolling down the hill. I never would have guessed that almost two decades later the Osage orange would bring intrigue into my life yet again. This time, however, it would be because of the evolutionary conundrum it presents to those interested in a paleontological mystery...

The fruit of this tree are strange. They are about the size of a softball, they are green and wrinkly, and their insides are filled with small seeds encased in a rather fibrous pulp that oozes with slightly toxic white sap. No wild animal alive today regularly nibbles on these fruits besides the occasional squirrel and certainly none can swallow one whole. Why then would the tree go through so much energy to produce them when all they do anymore is fall off and rot on the ground? The answer lies in the recently extinct Pleistocene megafauna. 

The tree is named after the Osage tribe who used to travel great distances to the only known natural range of this tree in order to gather wood from it for making arrows. It only grew in a small range within the Red River region of Texas. When settlers made it to this continent, they too utilized this tree for things like hedgerows and natural fences. 

What is even stranger is that recent fossil evidence shows that Maclura once had a much greater distribution. Fossils have been found all the way up into Ontario, Canada. In fact, it is believed that there were once 7 different species of Maclura. It was quickly realized that this tree did quite well far outside of its current natural range. Why then was it so limited in distribution? Without the Pleistocene megafauna to distribute seeds, the tree had to rely on flood events to carry the large fruit any great distance. With a little luck, a few seeds would be able to germinate out of the rotting pulp. Botanists agree that the Red River region was a the last stronghold for this once wide ranging species until modern man came on the scene. 

Another clue comes from the toxicity of the fruits. Small animals cannot eat much of it without being poisoned. This makes sense if you are a Maclura relying on large animals as dispersers. You would want to arm your fruit just enough to discourage little, inefficient fruit thieves from making a wasteful meal out of your reproductive effort. However, by limiting the amount of toxins produced in the fruit, Maclura was still able to rely on large bodied animals that can eat a lot more fruit without getting poisoned. Today, with the introduction of domesticated megafauna such as horses and cows, we can once again observe how well these fruits perform in the presence of large mammals. 

Finally, for anyone familiar with Maclura, you will notice that the tree is armed with large spines. Why the heck does a large tree need to arm itself so extravagantly all the way to the top? Again, if you need things like mammoths or giant ground sloths to disperse your seeds, you may want to take some extra precautions to make sure they aren't snacking on you as well. It takes energy to produce spines so it is reasonable to assume that the tree would not go through so much trouble to protect even its crown if there once wasn't animals large enough to reach that high. The Pleistocene megafauna went extinct in what is evolutionarily speaking only the blink of an eye. Trees like the Osage orange have not had time to adapt accordingly. As such, without the helping hand of humans, this tree would still be hanging on to a mere fraction of its former range down in the Red River region of Texas.

Further Reading:
http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=MAPO

http://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/trees-that-miss-the-mammoths/

http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0001745

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:
http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=sitr3

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/…/j.1365-2699.1998.…/abstract

http://www.castaneajournal.org/doi/abs/10.2179/10-039.1

http://instaar.colorado.edu/AW/abstract_details.php?abstract_id=16

A Temporary Inland Sea in Northeastern North America

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There are many species of small, nondescript spurge out there. All too often they go completely unnoticed, even by plant lovers like myself. As I have come to learn time and time again, every species has an interesting story to tell. That is why I started In Defense of Plants in the first place. The story I want to tell you today came to me from a chance encounter I had while exploring a beach on Lake Erie. I was musing over some tumbleweed I had found when I noticed some small spurge barely poking out of the sand around me. I took some pictures and moved on. Had I realized what I would come to learn from this spurge, I probably would have spent more time admiring it.

Our story begins roughly 18,000 years ago during the height of the last glacial period. Much of northern North America was buried under a massive glacial ice sheet. This was unlike anything we can witness on the continent today. In some spots the ice was well over a mile thick. The weight of that much ice on the land caused the bedrock underneath to compress, not unlike a mattress compresses under the weight of a human body. This compression pushed much of northeastern North America lower than sea level. Unlike a mattress, however, rock can take a very long time to rebound after the weight has been lifted. Around 13,000 years ago when the glaciers began to retreat, the land was still compressed below sea level. 

Champlain_Sea.png

With the ice gone, the ocean quickly rushed in to fill what is now the St. Lawrence and Ottawa River valleys as well as Lake Champlain. A salty inland lake coined the Champlain Sea was the result of this influx of ocean water. For some time, the Champlain Sea provided seemingly out of place maritime habitat until isostatic rebound caused the land to rise enough to drain it some 10,000 years ago. During this period, the Champlain Sea was home to animals typically seen in the northern Atlantic today including whales, whose fossils have been found in parts of Montreal and Ottawa. Coastal plant communities formed along the shores of the Champlain Sea, which brings me back to my little spurge friend. 

Inland beach pea ( Lathyrus japonicus )

Inland beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus)

Sea rocket ( Cakile edentula )

Sea rocket (Cakile edentula)

The species in question is Chamaesyce polygonifolia, the seaside spurge. By no means rare, this obscure little plant is more typically found along the coast of the Atlantic. Along with other species like the inland beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus) and sea rocket (Cakile edentula), these plants followed the shores of the Champlain Sea and remained here in sandy, disturbed habitats ever since. These species are echoes of a brief period of time when North America was going through a lot of changes. Again, had I known this at the time, I don't know if I would have left the beach so quickly that day. I love to be reminded of how small we really are, how fleeting our existence really is. I love meeting species that are players in a much bigger story and Chamaesyce polygonifolia and company are just that. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

Echoes of a Glacial Past

Climate change is often talked about in the context of direct effects on species. However, as John Muir so eloquently put it, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." In essence, nothing is ever black and white and a recent publication by Dr. Robert Warren and Dr. Mark Bradford illustrates this fact quite well.

Ants and plants have some very intricate interactions. A multitude of plant species rely on ants as their seed dispersers. Many of these plant species are spring ephemerals that take advantage of the fact that there is little else for ants to eat in the early spring by attaching fatty capsules to their seeds that are very attractive to foraging ant species. There are two big players in the foraging ant communities of eastern North America, the warm adapted Aphaenogaster rudis and the cold adapted Aphaenogaster picea. The cold adapted A. picea emerges from winter dormancy early in the spring while the warm adapted species emerges from dormancy much later in the spring. In the southern portions of their range, A. rudis outcompetes A. picea.

What is the big deal? Well, the researchers looked at two plant species that rely on these ants for seed dispersal, Hepatica nobilis and Hexastylis arifolia. Hepatica nobilis sets seed early in the spring, relying on ant species like A. picea to disperse its seed whereas Hexastylis arifolia sets seed late in spring, which is prime time for A. rudis. They noticed that, in the southern portions of their range where A. picea had been displaced, Hepatica has a very clumped and patchy growth habit where farther north it did not. Hexastylis on the other hand seemed to have a more normal growth pattern in the south.

By performing some transplanting and examining foraging and seed dispersal, they found that the absence of A. picea in the south spelled ecological disaster for Hepatica. It continues to set seed but because A. rudis emerges long after seed set, it is not filling the gap left by the missing A. picea. Hexastylis, which only grows in the south and sets seed much later, does just fine with the warm adapted A. rudis. Farther north where A. picea still rules, Hepatica has no trouble with seed dispersal but Hexastylis drops out of the ecosystem entirely. In essence, because of warming climate trends since the end of the Pleistocene, Hepatica is falling out of sync with its mutualistic ant partner in the southern portions of its range and, in time, may become extirpated.

Further Reading:
http://bit.ly/1J4VnN7