2 million-year-old DNA reveals ancient Greenland ecosystem ‘unlike those found on Earth now’

2 million-year-old DNA reveals ancient Greenland ecosystem ‘unlike those found on Earth now’

North Greenland is known as “the land of the midnight sun and dog sleds” as a polar desert with massive icebergs. But that wasn’t always the case: 2 million years ago, it was “a forest ecosystem unlike any now found on Earth.”

A historic and “extraordinary” find already new study published in Nature this week reveal how much the frozen landscape has changed. Researchers found 2 million-year-old DNA, the oldest ever discovered, buried in a clay-quartz sediment that was preserved in permafrost at the northernmost point of Greenland.

“A new chapter spanning an additional million years of history has finally opened, and for the first time we can look directly at the DNA of an ecosystem that went back in time,” one of the researchers, Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge. , said in a Press release. “DNA can degrade rapidly, but we’ve shown that under the right circumstances, we can now go further back in time than anyone could have imagined.”

Geographical location and depositional sequence of Greenland finds.


Willerslev, together with Kurt H. Kjær of the University of Copenhagen, discovered 41 samples, each a few millionths of a millimeter long, but with an invaluable amount of information. These small samples revealed that the frozen region was once the ancient home of many more animalsplants and microorganisms that exist today, including hares and lemmings.

One of the most surprising discoveries, however, were tracks of animals that were thought never to have been in the country: reindeer and mastodons. The area where the DNA was found is usually only known for minimal plants, hare and musk ox, according to Nature.

“Reindeer, according to paleontologists, should not have survived,” Willerslev told Nature of the animal, which live wild in the west of the country. “They shouldn’t even exist at the time.”

Illustration of a mastodon

/ Getty Images

The mastodons, according to the San Diego Museum of Natural History, were massive Ice Age mammals that are similar in size and characteristics to today’s elephant. The animals, which went extinct 13,000 years ago, were thought to have lived mostly in North and Central America.

The researchers also found evidence that today’s relatively empty environment was a “wooded ecosystem unlike any now found on Earth,” according to Nature, full of poplars, firs and yews that don’t normally grow as north

“No one would have predicted this ecosystem in the north Greenland at this point,” Willerslev said.

Additional finds of horseshoe crab and green algae support scientists’ belief that the climate in northern Greenland 2 million years ago was warmer than it is today.

As incredible as their findings were, the researchers are just as excited about what it could mean in future studies using ancient DNA.

“Detailed records of flora and vertebrate DNA may survive in other localities,” the study says. “If recovered, they would advance our understanding of climate variability and biotic interactions during the warmer Early Pleistocene epochs in the High Arctic.”

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