Larix groenlandii

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Larix groenlandii

Paleontologists are constantly discovering new fossils in the Canadian Arctic.   Fossils come in many shapes and sizes and are simply the remains of prehistoric organisms.  From land mammals to aquatic fish, fossils of plants and trees also exist.

Image: A fossilized tree called Larix groenlandii.

3D View: Larix groenlandii
A field of evergreen trees and dry red grass.

Why this species is important

A prehistoric tree currently housed at the Canadian Museum of Nature is the Larix groenlandii (its scientific name).  This giant tree grew during a time known as the Pliocene era, which occurred 3 to 5 million years ago.  During this time Canada’s Arctic was full of lush forests.


The Continental Drift

The Earth is constantly changing.  Over millions of years the planet’s continents have shifted and continue to do so today.  This geological phenomenon is known as the Continential Drift.

Associated with these drifts are specific geological time periods when air temperature and life on Earth was very different than present day.

This interactive image shows how the Earth’s continents have shifted over millions of years.  400 million years ago the Earth’s land masses were close to one another and near the equator.  Around every 100 million years there were major landmass shifts. By 10 million years ago, the Earth’s continents were located in their current positions.

A map of the world showing the continents shifting between 400 and 10 million years ago.
10 million years ago
400 million years ago

The tree line


If you have ever travelled by plane from the southern part of Canada to the Arctic and looked down you would have noticed that trees seem to become smaller and then disappear. This is what is known as the tree line, a line that marks the limit as to where trees are able to grow.

About 3 to 5 million years ago, however, trees grew in abundance in the area. One such tree is Larix groenlandii. Found at Strathcona Fiord on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, this tree fossil was found by palaeontologists who sent it to the Canadian Museum of Nature where it is now housed.


A warm climate


Trees thrive in warmer climates. During the Pliocene era, when Larix groenlandii grew, scientists believe that the average temperature in the area was likely between 14 to 19ºC, very different from today’s Arctic temperatures.

Today, scientists believe that the planet is warming.  Could an increase in temperature possibly see large trees growing in the Arctic once again?


A mummified tree


Larix groenlandii is perfectly preserved. It is often referred to as being mummified instead of fossilized because of the way it was preserved in such a dry climate.