Arctic adventures – Wednesday August 8

This ship is great for getting around, but boy, do I ever love to go ashore.  There is so much plant life, and already so little time left to explore it.  In some places, the flowers create colourful splashes of life on gravelly soil, but in most of the places we stop, the tundra is a thick, living blanket.  And in most places, moss rules!  Bryophytes, with their sponge-like colonies, provide warm, moist environments that make life possible for many other plants.  Tiny animals live in the moss mat, and larger animals find food and shelter among the plants rooted in it.

Unlike the many plants that adopt low-growing forms to stay out of the drying Arctic wind and abrasive snow, bryophytes are naturally small.  Furthermore, when retaining water is not an option, many mosses can dry to a crisp and resume growth almost immediately when the rain or meltwater returns—a pretty handy trick in Canada’s harshest environments!  Knowing how slowly mosses and lichens grow, especially here in the Arctic, it is humbling to see entire landscapes covered with them.

On a normal research trip, I would be collecting hundreds of specimens to document the flora here. On this trip, many of the students are pressing plants into their journals, using the same technique of flattening and drying that botanists have used for hundreds of years.  Some are even using linen bands to secure them, the same way we do in our scientific collection at the Canadian Museum of Nature.  Dry, flat plants are convenient to store, and last for hundreds of years.  The oldest plants back home in the National Herbarium were collected in 1766.  The dried plants these students have collected will still look about the same when the journals are heirlooms treasured by their great-great-grandchildren.

While we explore the tundra, I am on the lookout for the Arctic moss Bryum wrightii, because I would really like to have photos of its gorgeous, inflated red capsules.  It is named for a very productive American botanist Charles Wright (1811-1885), who collected the type specimen somewhere along the Bering Strait in the mid 1850s, on an expedition that also took him to Madeira, the Cape Verde Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and California.  His letters reveal that he was unhappy with some of his accommodations and teammates, finding “no one on our ship who takes any interest in science”.  I did not find Wright’s Bryum today, but I take solace in our comfy ship and our eager crew that cannot get enough science.  Sorry, Charles.