Between 1550 and 1850, a global cold wave known as the Little Ice Age brought frost across the Arctic. Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Teardrop Glacier spread frost across the landscape, causing ice to swallow the moss that surrounded it. That froze all the life forms there. Now the melting permafrost is awakening ancient life forms believed to be 40,000 years old.
According to The Washington Post, evolutionary biologist Catherine La Farge of the University of Alberta is exploring the Teardrop glacier and and found an ancient species of moss called Aulacomnium turgidum that freed itself from its ice prison. While the moss was faded and torn, it displayed a hue which commonly suggests signs of life.
Due to climate change, scientists often warn that melting permafrost could expose a lot of threats to our planets. This has gotten even more serious when the United Nations said in a new report that 1 million of our planet’s plant and animal life could be threatened by extinction.
It’s no secret that the Arctic is melting, and now researchers who study the area are discovering ancient life forms which were thought to be extinct for millennia. However, microbes are capable of starting life anew. Various species have been found in the melting permafrost, from bacteria to more advanced multi-cellular organisms.
“You wouldn’t assume that anything buried for hundreds of years would be viable,” La Farge told The Washington Post.
Her team surveyed Teardrop’s margin in 2010 and found blackened plant matter that was released from the melting glacier. The researchers wanted to make a catalog of vegetation that formed the island’s ecosystem long ago.
“The material had always been considered dead. But by seeing green tissue, I thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty unusual,'” La Farge said about the centuries-old moss tufts she found.
They brought what they found back to the university and began studying it. The jagged ice crystals that surrounded the ancient life forms could shred the cell membranes, making the species unable to survive in the ice. However, while animals and other plant species crumble before the frigid winter season, microbes and mosses somehow managed to survive. They enter a sort of hibernation when temperatures fall too low and then awaken when the freezing is over.
This process enabled mosses to survive the tough conditions of the ice age better than other plants, according to Peter Convey, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey. His team also announced in a study published in Current Biology that they’ve successfully awakened a moss believed to be over 1,500 years old, which was hidden beneath three feet of permafrost in the Antarctic.
“The permafrost environment is very stable,” Convey said. He also explained that the frozen soil can work as an insulator from surface-level stresses like freeze-thaw cycles or DNA-harming radiation, also enabling the mosses to survive.