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Five-Year Project to Record Arctic's Botanical Bounty

Inside a tent, Sokoloff prepares to press cottongrass (Eriophorum sp.) samples.

Firsthand Account

Arctic Flora Project

Research assistant Paul Sokoloff will be blogging during autumn 2011 about his work on the project.

A purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) flower.

Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago

Now Online

Data and illustrations for almost 350 taxa of vascular plants. Find out more.

Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

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This rare pygmy aster (Symphyotrichum pygmaeum) was discovered during a museum field expedition to Victoria Island, Nunavut, in July 2008. It was previously unknown in that part of the Arctic.

Laurie Consaul © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Lynn Gillespie (left) and Jeff Saarela collect willows along the Hornaday River during a field expedition in Tuktut Nogait National Park, Northwest Territories, 2009.

The Canadian Museum of Nature is spearheading an ambitious, international five-year project to compile a scientific catalogue of Arctic plants in Canada and northern Alaska. When completed, it will be the most thorough reference about the surprisingly rich plant diversity that exists in some of North America's most climate-threatened ecosystems.

"Simply put, the goal is to create a new, up-to-date and comprehensive Flora of the Canadian Arctic," says museum botanist Dr. Jeff Saarela, one of the project's co-leaders, along with Dr. Lynn Gillespie. "We plan to build on existing information about vascular plants in the Arctic, add new data from under-explored areas and create a 'new standard' that will include digital assets and web and database technologies."

A flora is a record of plant species that includes descriptions and scientific names, as well as distribution maps, images and other noteworthy details such as a plant's traditional uses. These records offer a "point-in-time" reference for biologists, conservationists, policy experts and anyone with a need to know about the plant diversity in a region.

The museum has brought together a crack team of experts to tackle the project's broad-ranging goals, which will address an estimated 800 vascular plants. In addition to a core group of scientists from the Canadian Museum of Nature, the 13-member team includes botanists from Canada (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, University of Manitoba and Université de Montréal) as well as Norway and Alaska. Each brings knowledge about specific plant groups, as well as access to Arctic-based collections.

"The nature of taxonomy is that it is always changing—distributions, names and even species may be revised over time. So, we want to take what's known, add to it, and set a new baseline to document Arctic plants and guide future research," explains Saarela.

With climate change known to be affecting the Arctic, the project has immediate relevance. Plants are found in all Arctic ecosystems and they are known to be affected by changes in temperature and moisture. As the climate changes, plants may migrate or distributions may be altered. "We know, for example, that some shrubs such as willows and birch are getting bigger," explains Saarela. As well, there are some areas along the tree line where species more common to the boreal forest are slowly moving north to settle in Arctic ecozones.

The Arctic Flora Project builds on the museum's traditional strength in Arctic research. In the National Herbarium of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Nature houses the most complete collection of Canadian Arctic plants, some of which date to the 19th century. Museum botanists have authored several floras for the Arctic islands, including Dr. Susan Aiken's 2007 Flora of the Canadian Archipelago. And for almost a century, museum staff have explored Canada's northern regions to collect, identify and study botanical specimens. Recent fieldwork expeditions have taken them to Victoria Island and the remote Tuktut Nogait National Park in the Northwest Territories.

Thankfully, there is already much that the project team can draw from. Numerous floras exist for regions of northern North America, including the Canadian Arctic Islands, Nunavut, Yukon, Alaska, the continental Northwest Territories and northern Quebec and Labrador (forthcoming). But there are gaps in knowledge from poorly explored or under-collected areas, and some references are decades old. "When you have multiple treatments, you don't get the full picture, and you want something that covers the whole region," explains Saarela.

There are challenges ahead. One is to locate all relevant collections that include current records of Arctic plants. As well, most collections are not well digitized, meaning the records about what species exist and where they have been found cannot be easily shared.

Getting feet on the ground will also be essential to surveying under-explored areas. These include parts of northern Baffin Island as well as large portions of the interior of Nunavut. "You can use satellite imagery to assess large areas, but to record biodiversity in a fine way, you need to be on the ground and collect it," says Saarela. "Once you have something, and bring it into an official museum collection, it becomes part of the permanent scientific record."

Once collected, scientific sleuthing will be required to resolve outstanding questions for some hard-to-identify species. Saarela, for one, specializes in the study of sedges and grasses, which don't have much to attract the eye. "I like the plants that most people don't really look at. They don't produce big flowers, for example." DNA technology will be one tool used for accurate identification.

All these challenges were top of mind when the project team convened for the first time at the museum in March 2011. Goals were discussed, timelines were set and criteria for the project identified. One of the biggest questions—where to draw the line for the area of study—was resolved with a decision to follow the Circumpolar Arctic Vegetation Map, which essentially captures the geographic areas above the tree line.

So now the stage is set. If all goes according to plan, over the next year the team will compile all the digitized and non-digitized records currently known through collections. Once distribution maps are prepared, then the researchers can expect to head north for targeted fieldwork expeditions.

And new discoveries are sure to be had, as Saarela found out during the 2009 expedition through Tuktut Nogait National Park: "We found all kinds of things that were new to the area, but we know that's mainly because the area had not been well studied."

Did You Know?

Purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), the provincial flower of Nunavut, is almost always the earliest flower to appear in the spring. The flowers are eaten by Indigenous Peoples, or dried and used as tea.

Scheuchzer's cotton-grass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri) is commonly grazed by muskoxen. The cotton heads are used for lamp wicks. Kanguujat, the term for this plant used in North Baffin, means "what looks like snow geese" because a field of the plants in fruit looks similar to snow geese that have just landed.

Mountain avens (Dryas integrifolia) is widespread in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. These plants are said to indicate the seasons: when summer is coming they fold out in one direction and when winter is coming they fold in and twist in the other direction.

Steve Cumbaa, Laurie Consaul, Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

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