Way back in 1850, a Teardrop Glacier extended its frozen tongue across the landscape and swallowed a small tuft of moss on Canada's Ellesmere Island. Since then, it has lay frozen under a 100-foot-thick slab of ice, till now. Evolutionary biologist Catherine La Farge has now found the tuft of the species Aulacomnium turgidum finally free from its icy entombment, and while it was faded and torn, it still sported a verdant hue - a possible sign of life.
While numerous studies have time and again shown that 1 million of our planet’s plant and animal species face the specter of extinction, thawing ice caps and permafrost are starting to reveal a story of astonishing biological resilience.
Researchers are discovering organisms, frozen and presumed dead for millennia that can bear life anew. These ice age plants range from simple bacteria to multicellular animals and their endurance is a stunning tale of resilience.
In 2009, La Farge and her team was scouring Teardrop’s margin to collect blackened plant matter spit out by the shrinking glacie when they noticed the green tissue. "I thought, 'Well, that's pretty unusual'," La Farge said about the centuries-old moss tufts she found.
She brought back dozens of samples back to Edmonton, lavishing them with nutrient-rich soils in a bright, warm laboratory. Incredibly, a third of the samples burst forth with new shoots and leaves. Speaking about it La Farge revealed they were blown away as the moss showed few ill effects of its multi-centennial deep-freeze.
Turns out mosses desiccate when temperatures plummet, sidestepping the potential hazard of ice forming in their tissues. If parts of the plant do sustain damage, certain cells can divide and differentiate into all the various tissue types that comprise a complete moss, similar to stem cells in human embryos.
These enable them to survive long-term freezing, said Peter Convey, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey.
Based on La Farge's discovery, Convey's team too announced it had awakened a 1,500-year-old moss buried more than three feet underground in the Antarctic permafrost.
The regrowth of centuries-old mosses suggests that glaciers and permafrost are not merely graveyards for multicellular life, but they could instead help organisms withstand ice ages.
This in turn means with global warming, new species could reemerge and dominate the polar ecosystems.
Convey further revealed that when melting ice exposes land surfaces, they are usually colonised by plants from other places, which can take decades.
However, "when something can survive in situ, that really accelerates the recolonization process." These mosses can paint a lifeless landscape green almost overnight, paving the way for other organisms to arrive and establish a new habitat.