2-million-year-old DNA reveals an historical Greenland ecosystem “not like any now discovered on Earth”

North Greenland is understood for being “the land of the midnight solar and canine sledding” as a polar desert with large icebergs. However that wasn’t all the time the case – 2 million years in the past, it was “a forested ecosystem not like any now discovered on Earth.” 

A historic and “extraordinary” discovering and a brand new examine printed in Nature this week reveal simply how a lot the icy panorama has modified. Researchers discovered 2-million-year-old DNA – the oldest ever found – buried in clay and quartz sediment that was preserved in permafrost in Greenland’s northernmost level. 

“A brand new chapter spanning a million additional years of historical past has lastly been opened and for the primary time we will look straight on the DNA of a previous ecosystem that far again in time,” one of many researchers, Eske Willerslev from the College of Cambridge, stated in a press launch. “DNA can degrade shortly however we have proven that below the correct circumstances, we will now return additional in time than anybody might have dared think about.” 

Geographical location and depositional sequence of the Greenland findings. 


Willerslev, together with Kurt H. Kjær from the College of Copenhagen, uncovered 41 samples, every only some millionths of a millimeter lengthy, however with a useful quantity of knowledge. These tiny samples revealed that the freezing area was as soon as the traditional residence for a lot of extra animals, vegetation and microorganisms than are there at this time, together with hares and lemmings.  

One of the crucial stunning discoveries, nonetheless, had been traces of animals that had been thought to have by no means been within the nation in any respect – reindeer and mastodons. The world the place the DNA was discovered is often solely identified for minimal vegetation, hare and musk ox, in keeping with Nature.

“Reindeers, in keeping with paleontologists, shouldn’t have survived,” Willerslev advised Nature of the animal, which reside wild within the nation’s west. “They should not even exist at the moment.”

Illustration of a mastodon

/ Getty Pictures

Mastodons, in keeping with the San Diego Pure Historical past Museum, had been large Ice Age mammals which might be related in dimension and traits to the modern-day elephant. The animals, which went extinct 13,000 years in the past, had been thought to reside principally throughout North and Central America. 

Researchers additionally discovered proof that at this time’s comparatively empty atmosphere was as soon as a “forested ecosystem not like any now discovered on Earth,” in keeping with Nature, stuffed with poplar, spruce and yew timber that do not usually develop that far north. 

“Nobody would have predicted this ecosystem in northern Greenland at the moment,” Willerslev stated.

Extra findings of horseshoe crab and inexperienced algae help the scientists’ perception that the northern Greenland local weather 2 million years in the past was hotter than it’s at this time. 

As unbelievable as their findings had been, researchers are simply as enthusiastic about what it might imply in future research that make the most of historical DNA. 

“Comparable detailed flora and vertebrate DNA information could survive at different localities,” the examine says. “If recovered, these would advance our understanding of the variability of local weather and biotic interactions through the hotter Early Pleistocene epochs throughout the Excessive Arctic.”

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