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Arctic Lupine, Lupinus arcticus

Amazing Story!

An Arctic lupine (Lupinus arcticus), growing in a container.

The Arctic lupine grown from the recovered seeds.

Recent investigations have shed new light on an old story about some "prehistoric" Arctic lupine seeds from the Yukon. Thanks to enduring scientific curiosity and new technology, researchers have gotten closer to the truth about the age of the seeds.

In 1954, about 20 seeds were found in prehistoric rodent burrows. The burrows were discovered in frozen ground near Miller Creek, Yukon. They were made during the Pleistocene Epoch, which dates from two million to 10 000 years ago.

Museum palaeobiologist Dr. Dick Harington (now retired) heard about the burrows in 1966 while doing fieldwork in the area. He brought the contents of one rodent burrow, including the seeds and a skull, back to Ottawa. There, he showed the seeds to museum botanist Dr. Erling Porsild and Department of Agriculture botanist Gerry Mulligan. Porsild readily identified them as Arctic lupine (Lupinus arcticus) seeds.

Harington examined a lot of evidence and inferred that the rodent burrows and their contents were probably about 10 000 years old. He and his colleagues pondered how the seeds had been so well preserved. They thought that a catastrophic event, such as a landslide or a thick fall of volcanic ash, had likely sealed the tunnels in spring or early summer before the ground thawed. The contents had been frozen and dry for 10 millennia!

Skull of a collared lemming (Dicrostonyx groenlandicus) CMNFV12062.

This is the skull of a collared lemming (Dicrostonyx groenlandicus) that was found by Harold Schmidt in 1954.
Catalogue: CMNFV12062

Excitement ensued in 1967, when some of the seeds were successfully germinated. In 1967, they decided to see if any of the seeds could actually grow into plants. They tried to germinate the best-preserved ones... and it worked! The successful experiment was as interesting for the botanists as it was for palaeontologists, because no one had ever germinated seeds that old before, or even close.

Arctic lupine (Lupinus arcticus).

An Arctic lupine photographed in the Arctic in the 1970s.

But without a method of dating the lupine seeds more reliably, some scientists remained skeptical about their true age. Harington had tried several times to check their age. Experts had warned that because the seeds had been coated in wax, they were contaminated and would not yield a reliable radiocarbon age.

Decades later, Dr. Grant Zazula, a palaeontologist with the Government of Yukon, decided it was time to tackle this question again. He had studied ancient rodent nests buried in the permafrost and had recovered seeds from many different plant species. But he had never found any "prehistoric" Arctic lupine seeds.

Some of the seeds found in 1954 are still housed in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature. In 2008, Zazula contacted Harington, who (as an emeritus researcher at the museum) was able to provide some seeds for re-examination.

They turned to Dr. Fiona Brock, an expert in radiocarbon dating from the University of Oxford. She was able to overcome the wax-contamination problems and use accelerator mass spectrometry on the seeds. Her work in 2008 proved that the seeds were actually at least 50 years old, not 10 000!

Radiocarbon dating did confirm that the collared lemming skull found with the seeds is even older than 10 000 years—it is about 23 000 years old. Zazula speculates that the burrows had likely been exposed by mining activity, and seeds from modern Arctic lupine plants had fallen into them.

Science is about continually seeking new information and furthering our collective knowledge about the world. Scientists form reasonable suppositions based on the best evidence available at the time. These may be questioned later when new evidence is discovered and more advanced technology is available. This is what makes science dynamic and fascinating.

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