Spruce to shore: Cataloguing treeline and tundra flora along the Coppermine River

    Dr. Jeff Saarela collects cottongrass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri) near Kugluktuk, Nunavut.

    Expedition leader Dr. Jeff Saarela collects cottongrass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri) near Kugluktuk, Nunavut. PHOTO: PAUL C. SOKOLOFF © CANADIAN MUSEUM OF NATURE (2)

    By Paul C. Sokoloff, Research Assistant, Canadian Museum of Nature

    It’s early morning on July 1, and Dr. Jeff Saarela, Roger Bull and I — a three-man botanical research team from the Canadian Museum of Nature — are waking to our first full day of fieldwork documenting and collecting all the plant species growing along the lower Coppermine River in Nunavut. Our team is in the biodiversity business; as systematic botanists we seek to enumerate and describe the entire breadth of plant life in Canada’s Arctic. By examining plants for differences in physical appearance, variations in macro- and microscopic features, and even divergence in their genome, we divide plants into coherent groups sharing a common evolutionary descent (they have no other closer ancestor than other members of the same group). We call these groupings “species”. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?

    As the fundamental unit of biodiversity, scientists, policy makers, naturalists, and wilderness enthusiasts alike are often curious about the state of any given species. Where can I find it? Is it rare? What does it look like? How can I tell it apart from other species? That’s where we come in. Botanists group and name species based on careful research. We then document the diversity and range of these species, in areas as small as a city and as large as a continent, and present these findings in comprehensive books called floras (essentially a wildflower field guide on steroids). Currently, our team at the museum is in the midst of writing a new flora for the entire Arctic ecozone in North America, describing all the plant species north from the treeline from Nunavut to Alaska.

    Like many Arctic wildflowers, the Northern sawwort (Saussurea angustifolia) best displays its intricate beauty to a good macro lens.
    Like many Arctic wildflowers, the Northern sawwort (Saussurea angustifolia) best displays its intricate
    beauty to a good macro lens.
    All of this research, and specifically our new Arctic Flora, are based on collections made by generations of botanists. Housed in vast, systematically organized libraries called herbaria, these specimens are evidence behind the naming of species, and the proof behind assertions that a particular plant was growing at a particular place at that particular time. Without specimens to compare new collections to, we would not be able to consistently apply the same scientific name to a group of species. Similarly, without a collection to consult and verify, it would be impossible to confirm where species occur in Canada — what if the original identifier of a specimen mistook the plant for a different species? Without a specimen to check, we’d never know the mistake was made. Our desire to find and document plant life drives us to mount these collecting expeditions, continuing a centurylong tradition at the museum which has resulted in the largest collection of Canadian Arctic plants on the planet, residing in our very own National Herbarium of Canada.

    After 100 years of northern plant collecting, the herbarium serves as a good indicator of where we should go next: we plan trips to Arctic locations from which we have few to no collections. This was half the reason we decided that the Coppermine River would be the target of our 2014 expedition. Aside from a few collections made by the Canadian Arctic Expedition (another museum-sponsored trip) 100 years ago, there are very few collections from the Coppermine in the National Herbarium of Canada. However, another equally compelling reason to collect here is the fact that the sheltered Coppermine valley harbours the northernmost extent of the treeline in Nunavut. This zone, where the trees gradually taper from closely-packed forest to open tundra, harbours plant species from both ecozones and is expected to be the “front line” of climate change — one of the regions expected to be amongst the first affected. A complete inventory of the plant life here will establish a baseline allowing future work to measure changes in the ranges, community composition, and biodiversity of treeline plant species, giving an urgent edge to our botanical exploration.

    Back on the Coppermine, our month-long expedition began when a helicopter dispatched from the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP) ferried us and our 700-odd pounds of gear from Kugluktuk to our first camp —a large white pine stand a few kilometres away from the Coppermine.

    A typical day in our camp would see us up around 8 a.m. and stumbling towards the kitchen tent for our morning cup of coffee (AKA science fuel). Mornings were spent in our lab tent processing the plants we collected the day before. Each of us focussed on a specific task. Jeff would transcribe his field notes into the collection notebook, duly filling in pertinent habitat, location, and physical description details for each recorded plant. Roger took a sample of leaf tissue from each specimen and placed it in silica gel (the same you find in a box of new shoes), preserving the DNA locked within for later extraction and sequencing. I set about preserving the plants using the same technique botanists have been using for centuries — squashing the plants in a press. Once dry and two-dimensional, these specimens will last almost indefinitely in the protective cabinets of the herbarium.

    After a morning hunched over our work inside a 10-foot wide nylon dome, the freedom of the open tundra beckons, and we would lace on our hiking boots and head out on the land. The Arctic, and especially the treeline, is tessellated with numerous microhabitats: marshes, meadows, rocky outcrops, willow groves and the like, each harbouring a different array of small, easily missed plant species. To collect them all, we spend a lot of time hiking between different habitats while looking down at our feet.

    Even walking at a botanist’s methodical pace, we can quickly cover a lot of ground, and run the risk of becoming bored if we collect everything within walking distance. So, after a week at the treeline, we called into PCSP and they sent another helicopter for us. I admit, I always feel like I’m in an action movie when I get out the sat phone and call in for a chopper. After a few fine days exploring western Nunavut by air, we moved our camp to Kugluk/Bloody Falls Territorial Park, to repeat the explore-collect-press cycle. The beautiful weather and natural beauty found at the park belies its ominous past (Samuel Hearne named the Falls after a massacre he witnessed there in 1771), but provided a scenic backdrop to our work.

    Only 13 kilometres outside of Kugluktuk, Bloody Falls also re-introduced us to the idea of having neighbours — notably the friendly local parks staff (Gerry, Junior, and Gustin, thanks for all your help!), and Martin Anablak, who often stopped by for a cup of tea or to share the delicious fish he caught in the river. We were sad to leave such a friendly group, and such a beautiful place behind, but after 10 days at Bloody Falls it was time to pack up our gear into a jet-boat and move our collecting to the big city itself: Kugluktuk.

    All of this shuffling, helicoptering, and boating across the landscape paid off, and this year we returned home with nearly 1,400 specimens for the herbarium, including species that have never (or only once) before been reported in Nunavut. Some of our most intriguing finds from the expedition include chives (Allium schoenoprasum), and western birch (Betula occidentalis). While both species are common in southern Canada, our collections radically extend their known range North, where we found these species growing on the open tundra and on protected south-facing slopes respectively.

    The thrill of discovering new finds is exactly what motivates us to keep exploring and collecting these critical contributions to our knowledge on the biodiversity of Canada’s largest, and most imperilled ecosystem. For us, there’s no greater moment of wonder than stumbling across a new plant and thinking, “That’s weird. No, that’s new! I need to tell the world about this”.

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