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The Living Edens: The Lost World

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One might imagine that adapting to the harsh conditions of life in the Arctic would be a bleak and defeating process that, evolutionarily, would have bestowed the wildlife of Nunavut with a rather drab appearance. After all, survival often depends on a species' ability to blend into its background. Yet for the plants of the tundra, just the opposite has occurred. Although nearly all of Nunavut lies north of the tree line, where trees don't grow, the region's ground-dwelling flora are bright and multi-hued: purple saxifrage, yellow cinquefoils, wintergreen, and the white bells of arctic heather.

In fact, the coloration of arctic plants is actually a result of the adaptations necessary for their survival; specifically, it's a trait that results in greater heat absorption. Another method with which plants counteract the forbidding climate is to remain active year-round. Many arctic plants have evergreen leaves that retain their color even while frozen in the winter, allowing them maximum opportunity to photosynthesize whenever suitable conditions arise.

Much of arctic fauna consists of low-lying grasses, sedges, mosses, lichens, shrubs, and heaths. A number of factors contribute to the dwarfed size of these plants. By growing close to the ground, where temperatures are higher, the plants are able to minimize damage from blistering winds and snow blasts. Low leaf cover also creates pockets of trapped air that retain warmth -- clumps of saxifrage, for instance, may be several degrees warmer than the surrounding air temperature. For this reason, plants often crowd together to form warmer microclimates.

Throughout the year, just below the ground surface, a layer of permafrost keeps the soil frozen solid. Even in summer, this frost may only thaw to a depth of 6 to 12 inches, thus preventing the subsistence of deep-rooted species. Yet this permafrost is also a vital component of arctic life -- without it, the region's scant precipitation would be absorbed into the soil, lost to the vegetation on the surface. As it is, plant life tends to congregate in dips, ravines, sheltered slopes, and along lakeshores, where snow is more likely to accumulate and melt in the summer. With moisture in such short supply, coastal areas, marshlands, and lakeshores are common locations for sedges and other grasses. Shallow ponds and lakes are able to warm up enough to foster common aquatic plant life, such as pondweeds, bladderworts, and aquatic buttercups.

The poor drainage leaves arctic soil highly acidic, which results in low levels of nitrogen. Consequently, high concentrations of relatively lush vegetation often appear near areas that are frequented by animals. For instance, owl perches tend to be surrounded by a thick bed of grasses, where rodent and bird carcasses have been left to decompose. The ledges of nesting cliffs and the entrances to wolf and fox dens are other areas where the otherwise nutrient-poor soil may be fortified by animal waste and remains.

Just as the plants have adapted to their terrain and learned to survive in an inhospitable arctic climate, the region's human inhabitants have also learned to make the most of their surroundings. In particular, the local flora has provided a number of important functions. Arctic heather, for example, has a high resin content in its stems and leaves, which the Inuit traditionally burned for fuel. In the summer, the Inuit used heather to stuff their mattresses. Labrador tea is made from an evergreen herb; it acts as a calming agent that was used during painful procedures in traditional Inuit medicine. The Inuit also used arctic cotton, a type of sedge that produces silky white plumes, as wicks for their seal-oil lamps.

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Eco Explorer
Go on adventure to the Arctic.

Arctic Adventure
Discover the animals of the region.

Filming Arctic Oasis
Go behind the scenes with the producer.

For Teachers
Students will learn about the Inuit.

Find out more about the Arctic.

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