What's INSight Winter 2013

Page 6

Exploring the Alpine Unknown in Northern BC

Tsatia camp.

By Richard Hebda, Curator of Botany and Earth History; Erica Wheeler, Botany Collections Manager; Marji Johns, Paleontology Collections Manager and Ken Marr, Curator of Botany

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ritish Columbia is one of the most diverse places on earth when it comes to landscapes and habitats. Of these, the alpine zone, the land above the trees, is poorly explored especially in the north. As a consequence, the distribution of many plants and the occurrence of fossils are unknown and there may be some exciting surprises. In order to meet the Royal BC Museum’s mandate to increase our knowledge of the distribution and occurrence of animal and plant species in British Columbia, we have been collecting plants from alpine habitats of northern BC since 2002. Our botanical studies to date reveal that these remote mountains are home to more species of plants than one would expect, including ancient lineages of hardy survivors such as Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna). Mountain tops also expose large areas of bedrock, some of which are fossil-bearing sedimentary layers. 4

What’s INSight

Winter 2013

In such locations it is possible to make collections that document BC’s remarkable ancient heritage. This year we aimed to fill major geographic gaps in our plant and fossil collections. In late July, during a 15 day fieldtrip, Marji Johns, Erica Wheeler, Ken Marr, Will MacKenzie and Richard Hebda flew by helicopter to four mountains. At each mountain we collected, pressed and dried plant specimens. For selected species we preserved tissue that we and a researcher in Japan will analyze using DNA markers. The goal of this study is to attempt to reconstruct their migration in the northern hemisphere before, during and after the most recent ice age. We found fossils at each location and fossil-bearing slabs of rock were carefully packaged for transport. The trip began 140 km from the nearest highway in the eastern reaches

of the Spatsizi Plateau. This region is sometimes called the “Serengeti of the North” because of its large mammal populations. On the open windblown tundra of Tomias Peak and the ridges north of the Spatsizi River we collected more than 175 species of vascular plants. We were surprised to find so much diversity in a landscape that at first appeared to be nearly devoid of life. These plants and the lichen mats that form a ground cover in some alpine tundra habitats, provide forage for wildlife such as Caribou and marmots. Their flowers provide nectar and pollen for insects that are in turn fed upon by birds. Conglomerate beds and sandstones of Late Cretaceous age (70-65 million years old) form scarps within the undulating landscape. These rocks yielded intriguing plant and animal fossils which will be the subject of study for the next year.