The Plants of Qikiqtaruk. Part 1: The Shrubs

On a cold and distant island the stars of our science are sleepingBuried under a thick winter blanket, Qikiqtaruk in winter is exactly what many people imagine when I say I work in the Arctic: awash with snowdrifts, locked in sea ice, home for polar bears and not a huge amount else.

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Qiqiktaruk in winter

Yet here on Team Shrub we study plants. Come the summer sun, green tendrils of life emerge from the snow and the hardy, beautiful and fascinating plant life of the tundra begins to grow. Diverse in the manner of tropical rainforests it may not be, but these cold lands are nonetheless brimming with more life than you might think, featuring old favourites that adorn the hills of Scotland to wacky monstrosities that seem to spring out of some primeval past.

In this series we will be exploring some of our favourite species from our most northern field site, starting with our namesake: the shrubs.

The Shrubs

What makes a shrub? Such has been the dinnertime conversation at many a Scottish Feast. In short: short. Woody. Multi-stemmed. Sometimes evergreen, sometimes deciduous, always beautiful.

The willows

Qikiqtaruk is home to a grand total of nine willow species. Not bad for an isolated Arctic island. The Salix genus dominates much of the upper shin-high canopy, though you can find yourself wading through some of the bigger fellows. Bjorn even reaches chest height. Deciduous, green-leaved, the willows add a certain magic to the tundra as their fluffy seed spirals in the air on a breezy day, while bright red catkins dot the tundra floor underfoot.

Salix pulchra

Possibly our favourite shrub on the island. This beautiful willow surely lives up to its name: long ruby stems and startling emerald-bright diamond leaves, giving Salix pulchra its common name, diamond-leaf willow. On Qikiqtaruk Salix pulchra grows mostly along the ground in large, clonal mats that creep between tussocks of cottongrass and shelter small white Stellaria flowers. It’s one to watch though, as further south this willow can reach well over head height. Here, where the weather is sheltered and nutrients seep from the permafrost, Salix pulchra grows faster, bigger, redder, standing out from its neighbours atop the palsas, while on the hilltops we have already seen a tripling in its canopy height since we first started recording in 1999.

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Salix pulchra leaves catching the sunlight. The beautiful willow is a Western Arctic specialist found across tussock tundra and mountain landscapes of the Yukon and Alaska.

Salix richardsonii

One of the giants of Qikiqtaruk, Salix richardsonii, or Richardson’s willow, is the most common tall shrub on the island. It grows mostly in wetter, sheltered areas such as river floodplains, where nutrients flow freely and life is as easy as it gets in this bastion of land in the Arctic ocean. Forming a dense, shrubby canopy of bright green leaves, Salix richardsonii nonetheless has a rather grizzled visage, giving it our nickname ‘Old Man Willow’. Twisted branches and flaking orange-brown bark, flecked with white specks of age or hardship. Fat, hairy stipules easily mark it apart from other willows. A canopy bully, Salix richardsonii is now dominating areas where it can grow, rapidly expanding in many parts of the island as the climate warms.

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Encroaching Salix richardsoni is taking over the Ice Creek watershed on Qikiqtaruk. This is one of the tallest willows on the island and elsewhere in the Arctic where in can dominate tundra landscapes with dense, metres tall and sometimes impenetrable thickets of willows.

Salix arctica

This small willow is a remarkable example of the success and resilience of plants in these cold lands. Salix arctica, the Arctic willow, has the most northernmost geographic range of any woody plant, reaching all the way to the north coast of Greenland at 83 degrees north. A ground-hugging, prostrate woody shrub, it spreads woody limbs akimbo, stretching out in all directions along the top of the permafrost. Thin stems become roots, become stems again and it advances clonally, covering much of the surface until it is impossible to tell where one plant begins and another ends. Even if the main “trunk” is destroyed or decays, the plant will not die: an attempt at immortality. Unlike many of the other dwarf willows, Salix arctica eschews the small leaves and catkins of its fellow family members, and sticks to the strategy of the taller shrubs that bigger is better. Big, fat leaves emerge from the brittle stems, which giant fluffy catkins can strike up from the ground surface several times taller than the rest of the plant. Unusually, on Qikiqtaruk even the leaves and stems of Salix arctica strike upwards for the sky, possibly a hybridisation of one kind or another, and can stretch up even as much as 20cm from the soil.

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Salix arctica the Arctic willow with flowers blooming in spring. This is one of the most widely distributed plants across the tundra biome found from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the very tip of Greenland.

Salix reticulata

Just like Salix arctica, this dwarf willow hugs the floor with brittle stems and clonal creeping growth in all directions. The thick, leathery leaves of this plant give it its common name: net-leaved willow, which are criss-crossed and pocked with deep grooves. Once fallen in winter, these hardy leaves last, resisting decomposition and creating a crunching carpet underfoot.

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The waxy leaves of the net-leaved willow, Salix reticulata. Like with Salix arctica, this is a very widely distributed willow found in much of the Arctic, the Alps and even in Scotland!

Salix polaris and Salix phlebophylla

The smallest of Qikiqtaruk’s willows, these two species take you down onto hands and knees to appreciate their tiny round leaves and stalk-like stems. Hugging the ground in dense mats, often on the drier sections of hillsides or edges of tussocks, I often have trouble telling these apart from leaves alone. Yet catch them right in the season, and the red catkins of the polar willow (Salix polaris) stand out as one of the brightest flashes of red on the tundra, flecks of delicate colour, blood-rich, that in a matter of days dissolve into white and wind.

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The bright red catkins, fluffy white seeds and verdant green leaves of Salix polaris often remind Isla of the colours of Christmas!
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The tiny 2 – 4 mm long leaves of Salix phlebophylla covering the ground in a mat. Named for the skeleton leaves it ‘leaves’ behind year after year, this is one of the smallest willows in the world!

Salix glauca and Salix niphoclada

Two of the rarer tall shrubs on Qikiqtaruk, grey willow (Salix glauca) and snow willow (Salix niphoclada) can be a challenge to find, but occasionally stand out on the hillside where some seed has found its way to establishing. The grey-tinged haze of glauca willows sets them apart from the rest, while the sometimes rose-tinged stems and somewhat brighter leaves of niphoclada can cause us headaches when we search for Salix pulchra to sample. These two willows with green leaves covered in fine grey hairs and stems with a blue-green and waxy look to them can be indistinguishable when they have no visible catkins, which is much of the time, so they are often clumped together in our analyses.

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Less majestic than Salix glauca in other parts of the Arctic, here on Qikiqtaruk this willow can only eek out an existence in the warmest microclimates of south-facing slopes.

Salix alaxensis

Finally, the Goliath of Arctic willows. Salix alaxensis grows tall and often somewhat spindly up on Qikiqtaruk, almost buddleia-like, as if it wants to reach the sun and doesn’t care how it gets there. The leaves are grey-green, but a bright, fluffy white underneath – lannate, densely villous or tomentose if you will. Did you know there are over 20 botanical terms for being hairy! Certainly easy to identify. We have only recently discovered Salix alaxensis, the Alaskan willow, on Qikiqtaruk, though since individuals are already well established, thus it must have been evading detection for many decades.

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Isla with a particularly tall Salix alaxensis found on Qikiqtaruk in the summer of 2016 on a particularly buggy walk back from the retrogressive thaw slumps along the coast.

The birches

Betula nana and Betula glandulosa

If you spend much of your time tramping about the high hilltops of Scotland you may already be familiar with dwarf birch. Small, thickety and brittle, the dense brown stems of Betula nana or Betula glandulosa have snagged many a bootlace and tripped many a toe. Still, I love the Betulas for their leaves alone, some of the most perfect forms on the tundra. On Qikiqtaruk, Betula nana holds sway on flatter patches of hilltop; a low growing shrub that announces its presence as a darker green blur on the landscape, or from the waft of crushed Labrador tea underfoot, which tends to grow alongside birch. Unlike many other tundra sites, where Betula has run rampant as the climate warms, it so far seems to be losing out to the willows here, though in some places the dense, spotted branches form an impenetrable tangle across whole swathes of tundra. As for the difference between nana and glandulosa, the latter is taller, larger leaved, greater noduled. Or not, as the case may be – perhaps they are one species after all, marked apart not by genetics but simply variation.

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A very dwarf birch, Betula nana/glandulosa – is it one species or two? – nestled amongst compatriots including Rhododendron tomentosum and Vaccinium vitis-idea (see below).

Tundra tea

Rhododendron tomentosum

A hero of the Arctic smellscape, Rhododendron tomentosum is another favourite of ours. The shrub itself is part beautiful: white flowering baubles full of rich scent, rusted felt underside of leaves, and part ugly: the ash-black branches spindly, frail and commonly dead, dark leaves often matted and speckled, a formless shape creeping amongst better rivals. But altogether outstanding are the leaves themselves. Rhododendron tomentosum, marsh Labrador tea, may not quite have the glamour of its more grandiose and much less marshy southern cousin, but its leaves still bear the scent of a thousand tundra days; that unmistakable and uncapturable spice of terpene and midnight chlorophyll. This is a shrub that makes trait work bearable, and often one that prompts a pocket full of leaves for the walk home.

 

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We are crazy about the fragrant smell of Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), Ledum (its old name), I got to get some!

The berry bearers

Arctostaphylos rubra (Arctous rubra)

One for the photo albums. A. rubra, or bearberry, is certainly one of the more iconic tundra shrubs due to its bright, Rudolph-red leaves that can stain the bare tundra at certain times of year. Another prostrate-growing shrub, the ovate, vein-y leaves can bear a resemblance to the leather coins of Salix reticulata when green, though are stretched and less waxy. It is when the winter begins to draw in that Arctostaphylos rubra sets itself apart as the leaves turn, and formerly invisible patches of bearberry shine out. Red too, the berries that hide in amongst the leaves: a food source for humans and wildlife alike, though their diuretic properties also lend themselves to herbal medicines and may explain the preponderance of stained bear poo littering the tundra in autumn. A closely related species, Arctous alpina, looks almost identical except for the red berries that turn black when ripe.

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The bright red leaves of Arctostaphylos rubra in the autumn intermixed with some Vaccinium uliginosum.
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Arctous alpina the black berries of alpine or ‘black’ bearberry.

Vaccinium vitis-idea and Vaccinium uliginosum

Another set of plants that will be well known to hillwalkers, the Vaccinium genus is the main fruit bearer for local people and hungry researchers. The smallest, Vaccinium vitis-idea (Ligonberry, cranberry, cowberry – you name it!), carpets the surface with tiny, glossy leaves and even glossier red berries where cover is sparse and soils fairly dry. In places the leaves can turn to a deep, merlot red, or still drip with pink-white cowbell flowers. Harder to find on Qikiqtaruk, Vaccinium uliginosum (blueberry, bilberry etc.) rise higher from the undergrowth where soils are wetter, their berries blue, stems tough brown-green and leaves thinner and more leathery.

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Vaccinium vitis-idaea (and Empetrum nigrum). These Arctic cranberries make a delicious pie and jam if you have the patience to pick enough!

Rubus chamaemorus

Cloudberry, baked apple, or knotberry in England and averin in Scotland is best known on Qikiqtaruk as aqpik. This is one of the most prized of berries in this part of the world and when perfectly ripe is a delicious topping to pancakes, makes an excellent jam or is the perfect snack when stopping across the tundra. Quick to turn from unripe to rotten, finding your patch of cloudberries in season on Qikiqtaruk can be a challenge.  It is rare out there, preferring the wetter habitats on the edges of ponds or in ice-wedge terrain.

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The delicate salmon pink berries of ripe aqpik or cloudberry.

Empetrum nigrum

A heathery-looking dwarf shrub that is equally at home in the Scottish Highlands, on mountaintops around the northern hemisphere, under conifer canopies of the boreal forest, and in vast swathes of tundra. Also a clonal shrub, Empetrum nigrum can form dense mats stretching uninterruptedly for meters, or even tens of meters. Its super-power is allelopathy: the leaves contain toxic chemicals which, when leached into the ground after the rain, hinder germination or growth of other plant species. Fun fact: the wood smells delicious when boiled in water (don’t ask, and probably don’t drink).

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The bright leaves and black berries of Empetrum nigrum

The dwarf evergreens

Dryas integrifolia

The spear shaped leaves of the mountain avens is to me another iconic shape of the tundra. Whether forming into a sharp coniferous tip, or padded out into the more billowy, deciduous-tree form of Dryas octopetala, these OS map symbols of leaves are unrecognisable wherever they grow. But for many, Dryas integrifolia is best known for its flowers – the perfect white circles that polka-dot the tundra floor – and for the twisted filaments that are the phoenix seedhead, catching the sunrays and diffracting light and themselves across the tundra air.

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The bright white flowers of Dryas integrifolia.
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Twisting filaments of Dryas integrifolia as the flowers set seed at the end of the summer.

Cassiope tetragona

Growing amongst the rocks and along the dry hillsides, the weeping white bells of Arctic bell heather are another distinctive site at the height of a tundra summer. A relative of the glorious purple heather of the Scottish hills, Cassiope tetragona is similarly small and woody, minute spear-shaped leaves wrapped tight into the stem, forming scaly round limbs. As the season turns, these stems gradually shift from green to orange-brown, giving the tundra an almost burnt look, flowers rusting away to leave the brittle seed heads proud to the wind.

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Cassiope tetragona with four flower heads as per it’s name is one of the longest lived of tundra shrubs, with individuals being found that can be dated back to over 200 years.

Bonus: The uncategorised

Silene acaulis

If you’ve reached this far, well done for getting to the end. As a special bonus, I’ve included Silene acaulis, better known as moss campion. There is some confusion here as to whether Silene acaulis is best classed as a shrub or a forb. Silene as a genus refers to the campions, delicate flowers of field and rocks, all pink and white and herbaceous green leaves. Yet the harsher climates to which Silene acaulis has adapted produces a hardy, cushion-like shrub, past leaves compressed into woody stems. For myself, I class this bright plant as a forb, yet since I have seen it classed otherwise so under some schemes, it is worth a brief mention here.

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The resilient and secretive Silene acaulis

Beyond confusion of classification, Silene acaulis is by no means one to be relegated to the bottom of any list. It grows where often nothing else will, building a bivouac out of its own sharp leaves against the elements. Within this thick shell, the plant can grow to engulf surrounding rocks occasionally supporting other tiny plants as they grow through chinks in its armour. Most spectacular are the pink-purple flowers, which at the height of the summer dot these minuscule mountains like dewdrops, or like pins in a pin-cushion. Silene acaulis is rare on Qikiqtaruk – the soft, undulating landscape means there are few surfaces too harsh for competitors. But I have seen one once, in passing, making a mental note to come back to sample it later. I have never found one since.

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A rare find for Qikiqtaruk, a bit of Silene acaulis, spotted by Isla in the summer of 2017.

By Haydn, Sandra and Isla

Team Shrub – 2017 in Review

It was a big year for Team Shrub in 2017.

Like an Arctic willow in the tundra sunshine, we soaked up the beautiful rays of knowledge and delved further into the active layer of understanding. We grew taller and bushier as new members joined the team, and branched out into new areas of research. We bore fluffy research paper catkins, for our ideas and findings to be spread on the breeze of scientific discovery, and we put down new roots, to support, work with and learn from others in the future. And, of course, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing it all.

So as we look forward to all that 2018 brings, we are taking some time to revisit the year gone by, our favourite blog posts, and just how far we came in 2017.

Looking ahead: After a politically turbulent 2016, who could know what 2017 would hold? We spent the start of the year looking ahead with some trepidation, some anticipation and a good dose of excitement.

Decomposition in the cold. We kicked of a busy year as Haydn and Isla headed on a tour of Denmark and Sweden to attend the Oikos symposium on Decomposition in Cold Biomes (https://globalsoilbiodiversity.org/content/oikos-satellite-symposium). It was appropriate as the temperatures had dropped that week and it was quite snowy and chilly in beautiful Lund, Sweden as we chatted about cold-weather decomposition while cosy inside.

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Taking a tea break in Umeä

To Aberdeen. In March, it was our first Team Shrub trip to Aberdeen. We had a beach coding holiday and attended the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation conference with Gergana, Haydn and Sandra presenting. We teamed up with Francesca Mancini from the Aberdeen Study Group to lead a coding workshop on efficiently analysing and visualising big-ish data in ecology.

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Jumping for joy at the thought of more coding!

Glimpses of our future? By April, we had a wee glimpse into what 2017 might have in store for us through a traditional Bulgarian pastry dish with our fortunes inside!

Tundra Greening and Browning. Also in April, After a lab trip to Durham, Haydn’s home town, to talk permafrost for a day at Durham University. Andy and Isla went to the home of the Crucible, the land of snooker, the (real) region of Robin Hood, and the heartland of the only English football team named after a day of the week. (Also the home of the Arctic Monkeys – who incidentally haven’t spent much time in the Arctic). If you haven’t guessed yet, we went to the town of Sheffield for the ‘Arctic Browning Workshop’. The Arctic is warming and satellites have shown a fair bit of greening, but recent evidence suggests a decrease in the rates of increasing greenness at high latitudes and some browning events. The theme of the workshop was exploring that Arctic browning and what might be causing it.

A trip to the Highlands. Also in April and before the field season, Team Shrub headed to the highlands to show our visiting scholar Jeff Kerby and our summer drone pilot Will Palmer the beautiful countryside in our own backyard.

Traits. In June, Haydn, Anne and Isla headed the deep South of the UK to almost tropical temperatures at the University of Exeter. We were at the New Phytologist 39th Symposium on Trait covariation. Whether in the symposium sessions or out on Dartmoor, we had a great time pondering plant traits from the tropics to the tundra.

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Team Shrub strike out across the Highlands.

The Field Season. Suddenly it was the field season. Team Shrub divided into two teams: Team Drone and Team Kluane to concurrently conduct our data collection on either end of the Yukon. From drones, tea bags, phenology, stories, sounds, smells, feasts, birding, to reunions many adventures were had and a ton of data was collected. We managed to capture over 100,000 images or more than two TB of data with our drones, to dig out over 300 tea bags from the ground, and to fill several field books or iPad spreadsheets with numbers and notes. It was a productive period and we are still working away on processing the data.

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Team Shrub together at last!

New beginnings. This September marked the start of Mariana’s and Gergana’s PhD research. Mariana is modelling how plant species distributions will shift under climate change at two extreme biomes – the tundra and the savannah. Gergana is quantifying the effects of land use change on global and local patterns of species richness, abundance and composition. Sam, Claudia and Matt have joined Team Shrub for their honours dissertations. The data presents will soon be rolling as new student projects come together and our first three Team Shrub PhD students finalise their dissertations over the coming months.

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First day of being a PhD student for Mariana and Gergana!

Coding. Coding Club celebrated its first birthday! Coding is a big part of our work on Team Shrub, we use coding in our research, teaching, our lives in general… where would we be without it. Perhaps a bit less constantly frustrated, but also without those moments of glory when everything runs error free! We even made up a fictional journal for the Conservation Science course that Isla organises and Gergana and Mariana are tutors on. You can find out more about AQMCS (Advanced quantitative methods in conservation science) here – Same data – different results? ConSci 2017 introduces AQMCS!

Conservation in the Cairngorms. In early October, members of Team Shrub took our annual pilgrimage up to the highlands of Scotland for the weekend fieldtrip on the Conservation Science course. With all sorts of weather, mountains, drones, delicious cake and an epic music jam, fun was had by all!

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Learning about conservation in a majestic landscape

Biodiversity, the New North and the science/policy interface. Also in the month of October, along with keen undergraduates from the Conservation Science course, we went along to the Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity conference. For the undergraduates involved, it was their first ever conference. It was pretty inspiring to see the next generation of conservation scientists getting the opportunity to talk with the Scottish experts in the field. A few weeks later in November, we headed to the “Scotland and the New North” policy forum, where Isla got to hold the door for Nicola Sturgeon! A new focus looking Northward for Scotland could mean new things for Team Shrub research in future.

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What will Scotland’s new focus northward mean for Team Shrub?

Also in November, Mariana attended two  policy-related events: the EEB Changing Landscapes conference in Edinburgh and the BES “Understanding science policy in Scotland“ workshop in Stirling. The first was a high-level event where major conservation organisations discussed the future of nature in Europe; while the second zoomed into Scotland to understand how science can feed into the policy-making process.

Writing. In November, Team Shrub had our first official writing retreat. We have been talking about having a writing retreat for years and finally things came together with a chance to focus on our writing goals, away from distractions. We were so inspired that we are planning on having a residential writing retreat sometime in the Spring of 2018 – where we can go from one day of super high productivity to hopefully a long weekend.

Dual Conferences. In December, Team Shrub headed to two big conferences happening at the same time! You can read about our parallel conferences experiences here. At Ecology Across Borders in Ghent, Belgium, Anne, Mariana and Gergana joined over 1500 ecologists to take in lots of exciting science, go to workshops, meet new people or catch up with old friends. Gergana and Anne gave talks, in sessions happening at the same time!

At Ecology Across Borders, we also led a Coding Club workshop, titled “Transferring quantitative skills among ecologists”. We shared our approach to teaching coding to keen participants from the conference. All of our workshop materials are online: Transferring quantitative skills among scientistsYou can also check out the Coding Club website to find all of our tutorials as well as information on how you can join our team and organise workshops at your home institution.

The other half of Team Shrub, Isla, Sandra, Haydn, Jakob, Andy and Jeff went to Quebec in Canada for the penultimate ArcticNet meeting – Arctic Change 2017. You can check out the daily round-up blog posts about the conference here – day 1day 2, day 3 and days 4 and 5. A pinnacle moment for Team Shrub was Haydn and Jakob winning the top two prizes from the conference elevator pitch contest!

Rejections. When we drafted our goals for 2017, we also set out our rejection goals. The idea behind rejection goals is that if we never get rejected, then maybe we aren’t aiming high enough. We decided to collectively aim for 50 rejections. So how did we do? We counted 23 rejections out of our goal of 50. Now perhaps we didn’t manage to count every single rejection this year, some of them we would rather just forget, but can we count the fact that we didn’t achieve our rejections as one additional fail?  Then technically we are at 24 out of 50?

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Team Drone on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Northern Yukon.
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Team Kluane at Outpost Station in the Southern Yukon.

Outreach. At Our Dynamic Earth, we shared the excitement of using drones for science. At the Edinburgh Science Festival, we explored art as a way to communicate science. We put together the photography exhibit “Arctic from Above” and developed collaborations with Simon SloanArchie Crofton to explore how art and data interface and ASCUS looking at tundra shrubs as time machines. Then at Curiosity forest, part of Explorathon 2017, we used drone simulators and cool dendrochronology samples to learn about how to study Arctic change.

There were also many jolly meals and trips to the pub. Many heated debates as we discussed science in lab meeting or over lunch. There were many moments of coding frustration followed by a sense of achievement as we worked through our scientific goals.

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One of many lab meetings!

So those were some of the Adventures for Team Shrub in 2017.

What will 2018 hold? We already have some exciting things to share with you over the coming months, and many more in the pipeline. Hopefully we will also have some fantastically fluffy catkins this year: keep your eye on the breeze.

So from all on Team Shrub, a very happy new year and we look forward to sharing with you, working with you, and learning from you in the year to come.

By Gergana, Isla and Haydn

The turning of the seasons

It’s a hot day. The sun is beating down on the damp ground, freshly cleared of melted snow, and beneath the wet surface the ice begins to retreat.

Nothing too unusual, except that it’s the middle of April, and our field site is an island off the Arctic coast of Canada. Thirty years or so previously things would still have been buried under a thick blanket of winter snow, but as the Arctic heats up, spring is advancing.

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Springtime in the great white north

One of the big questions we are trying to answer is how an earlier spring alters tundra plants. Are they flowering earlier? Does that mean growing seasons are longer? What about different species, do some do better than others? Are there knock-on effects for pollinators, birds, caribou? Can we predict how things will change in the future?

All big questions, all with big consequences for the shape and colour, the sights and smells, the ebb and flow of life for plants, animals and people alike in these cold northern lands. We are faced with one big problem though: come the spring, there’s no-one yet around to measure anything.

But, to butcher a quote, we have a cunning plan. Three, in fact.

1. Eyes in the sky

While we may still be enjoying the cherry blossom on the Meadows and the blustery showers blowing in from the North Sea in April, our field sites are still being watched from above. Satellites give us a great deal of information, all year round, that we can use to track the timing of life (phenology) across the Arctic.

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Qikiqtaruk locked up in sea ice this spring

One approach is to use the ‘normalised difference vegetation index’ (or NDVI for short) to measure the ‘greenness’ of the landscape as the spring unfolds. That works well enough, but the resolution is coarse, and clouds are causing a lot of trouble (no data) particularly in the cloudy summers of the Arctic.

Part of our research aims to link satellite data with ground-based observations. We do this using drones to collect high-resolution imagery and NDVI measurements at the landscape level: ‘bridging the gap’ between coarse resolution images from space, and very detailed monitoring data from small-scale vegetation plots. This way we get a much better understanding of what is going on when we’re not at our field sites, and at all the other places around the Arctic we will never get the chance to visit.

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Bridging the gap

2. Boots on the ground

One of our local breweries has recently started a series called ‘Advancement Through Collaboration‘, teaming up all sorts of different groups to create something new. We try to take the same approach to our own science, whether it is sharing data and ideas with other Arctic researchers around the world, or creating artwork out of shrub rings.

When it comes to phenology, we are incredibly lucky to be able to collaborate with Yukon Parks rangers on Qikiqtaruk – folks who not only welcome us to their lands each summer, but provide insight into the changes in the tundra in ways we never could. Three times each week from late April to early September, every year since 2001, the rangers make the half an hour hike up to sets of long-term monitoring plots to record life stages in three tundra species. They diligently record when their first leaves appear, when they flower, and when they die. Overall, this is one of the longest continuous phenology monitoring datasets in the tundra!

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Checking up on the long-term phenology plots with Ricky-Joe and Sam

With data like this, we can track how plants are responding to change in much more detail. We can also compare different species: are there winners and losers? And we have the data to link things across scale: the information to build the bridge up from individual plants to the whole biome.

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Gergana and Will collecting detailed growth and phenology measurements

3. Fly on the wall

It’s never going to pull in the TV audiences of Big Brother, but a bunch of 24 hour cameras trained on Arctic plants really floats our boat. Last year we installed a couple of phenocams – basically time-lapse cameras – to track in more detail how plant communities are changing over the growing season.

This year we were fortunate enough to secure some additional funding from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) to expand the project. Hugely exciting for us, we will now be able to track vegetation communities across the island, scaling up our findings from the long-term monitoring plots to the landscape scale.

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A phenocam standing tall above the Arctic tundra on Qikiqtaruk

Even more exciting, we are using the cameras to link differences in phenology across the Arctic through our ‘common garden’ experiment in the south of the Yukon. Here we have planted willows collected from across the Yukon to examine whether different populations will respond to change in different ways. One of the biggest differences we have seen so far is that northern populations seem to stick to their ‘home’ growing season: they leaf out late and senesce early compared to southern individuals of the same species growing just 50cm away.

Does the difference in senescence timing explain the difference in growth in these two willows? Willows are of the same species, collected as cuttings in 2013 from a southern tundra site (left) and northern tundra site (right).

At present we can only track phenology changes in the garden thanks to input from more wonderful collaborators – Sian Williams and the folks from Icefield Discovery working down at Kluane Lake. With our new phenocams we can for the first time track differences in phenology over the whole year, not just in our experiment, but at the sites where willows were collected! We think this is the last piece in the puzzle to be able to answer exactly what is going on – whether willows have responded to new conditions, or whether their genes mean that old habits die hard. Our phenocams in the common garden are now installed, and we’ll be installing the remainder at our remote field sites as soon as the summer expeditions get underway. Watch this space!

By Haydn

Haydn is the recipient of a Dudley Stamp Memorial Award on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part I: Ecological communities in the Arctic

Qikiqtaruk is a beautiful and inspirational place – science chats are particularly special when you can see, feel, hear and even smell your study system change as the growing season progresses. Out during phenology data collection yesterday, we saw that the spring flowers are fading and seed dispersal is beginning… summer is well under way. And this year, in addition spotting awesome wildlife, admiring magnificent sunsets and informally chatting about science in our remote Arctic field site, we have also started a book club!

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Living among the flowers

Over the past year, Mark Vellend’s “The Theory of Ecological Communities” prompted the start of several book clubs around the world. Mark is a collaborator of ours and Isla’s former postdoc advisor, so we have been eagerly awaiting our chance to read and discuss his book.  We didn’t initially join the book club, but we did manage to stay away from major spoilers and now that we are on Qikiqtaruk and away from the distractions of the world beyond the island (and as close to the plant communities we study as could be) this seems like just the right time to start our very own book club!

We read the first two chapters of Mark’s book after a day of putting hundreds of tea bags in the ground for a decomposition experiment out across the landscape in the different ecological communities here on the island from flood plain willows to dry grass and tussock sedge, and here are our thoughts!

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What is decomposition like in this wet tangle of leaves?

The first question that Mark asks in his book is:

“What is community ecology and how does one define an ecological community?”

Gergana has also been concurrently reading Anne Magurran’s “Measuring Biological Diversity”, which also discusses the definition of an ecological community or species assemblage, so taking what we learned from the two books, there are many ways to define a community, and it’s rarely clear where are community ends and another begins…

Unless you are on a remote Arctic island! Here on Qikiqtaruk, there are several very distinct ecological communities – in particular the so-called Herschel and Komakuk vegetation types.  They are very easy to spot when you are out walking around across the landscape or from a drones-eye view from 50 – 100 metres in the air. The ecological communities are so distinct up here that it is the only place that Isla has been to where she truly believes vegetation classification is possible.

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The Herschel (left) and Komakuk (right) vegetation types

The Herschel communities are older landforms (we think) and dominated by tussocks of the sedge Eriophorum vaginatum, whereas the Komakuk communities likely have undergone disturbances such as active layer detachments, more active cryoturbation and erosion and are dominated by forb species, grasses and the dwarf willow Salix arctica. There are very few species shared between them, and it’s virtually impossible to confuse the two. But why are there such distinct ecological communities in the same extreme Arctic environment occupying the same upland soils with the same overall species pool that are undergoing the same types of selection pressures?  This remains a mystery to us.

Point framing in the Herschel and Komakuk vegetation types. The two locations are about 200m apart

How did these two communities come to be? We think that perhaps it was the different disturbance facilitated the establishment of the younger Komakuk community. But what is keeping the communities separate today? As demonstrated by the abundance of bare ground patches in Komakuk, some level of disturbance continues, but there are a few, not many, but still some areas of Komakuk where Eriophorum tussocks are making a comeback – we probably won’t live to see it in these long-lived and slow growing plant communities, but maybe at some point, the Herschel community will again dominate over Komakuk in less disturbed parts of the landscape. But on the other hand, with longer growing seasons and warming autumn and winter temperatures perhaps different disturbances are on the increase in this part of the climate-limited tundra biome.

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Grins and bare ground in the Komakuk vegetation community

Mark Vellend would have us believe that four factors alone shape the ecological communities that we see on the landscape including: 1) selection, 2) drift, 3) speciation and 4) dispersal.  And that within these four factors are many other forces at play such as biological interactions such as competition, mutualisms, herbivory, disease, etc.

On Qikiqtaruk we have found evidence of biotic interactions such as plant-plant competition and allelopathy potentially influencing the growth and germination of seeds and see signs of herbivory from the muskox and caribou, lemmings and voles down to insects, but it must be more than just biotic interactions creating these super distinct ecological communities up here in the Canadian Arctic.  Can the following chapters of the book “Theory of Ecological Communities” shed light on the ecological mystery that is the plant communities of Qikiqtaruk?  We shall see, so stay tuned.

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How does competition affect seed germination in the tundra?

We are looking forward to our next book club meeting. Until then, we will be collecting data and thinking about how the four high-level processes central to the Theory of Ecological Communities (selection, drift, speciation and dispersal) are influencing the patterns we see in the Herschel and Komakuk communities at our remote Arctic field site.

By Gergana and Isla

p.s. Gergana also found the acknowledgements section very inspirational – it’s always great to read about a community (of people) that supports one another and collectively works to advance science! The University of Queensland, in the sub tropics of the city of Brisbane Australia where the majority of the book was written, was also where Gergana spent a year of her undergrad – such a great place to think and write about ecology!  And such a different place ecologically from Qikiqtaruk in the Canadian Arctic.

This blog post was written on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Western Canadian Arctic as part of Team Shrub’s island book club, aiming to read and discuss Mark Vellend’s 2016 book “The Theory of Ecological Communities” while we are out in the field, right next to the communities we study.  Team Shrub are a group of plant ecologists who often work in high-latitude tundra ecosystems on topics in community ecology.

The team’s book club discussions are summarised in four blog posts:

Fieldwork Milestones

The icy waters that welcomed us to Qikiqtaruk are long gone – past are the beautiful sunsets with light reflecting off big chunks of ice, and instead we now see dark blue or grey waters and occasionally even beluga whales swimming by. It’s a great time of the summer, with some flowers still in bloom, while others are setting seeds. The sandpiper and plover chicks are growing up, and we have been spending lots of time out in the field – through sunshine, wind and fog, the data are rolling in!

Now that we have already celebrated our two week and three weekiversaries on the island and are approaching a month on the island, we thought we’d reflect on our fieldwork milestones so far!

21st June

We celebrated solstice by arriving on the island, checking out the vast expanse of sea ice in the water and exploring our home for the summer and all the breeding bird species with Park Biologist Cameron Eckert.

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1st July (Happy Canada Day!)

Canada Day dinner with the rangers – for some of us it was our first Canada Day ever and it was the big 150 this year, and we all had a great time sharing stories and enjoying a tasty feast on a day celebrating the confederation of peoples including all the original people of this vast country.

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2nd July

Wildlife sightings – some of our favourites include a herd of 25 caribou with calves, the four majestic muskoxen, a short-eared owl flying over camp, black guillemots riding the waves, waders dashing around on the spit, and belugas and bowheads off the cliffs from Collinson Head (14th July).

4th July (Happy Independence Day!)

Six new phenocams are all set up and hopefully well enough to resist any muskox encounters (none so far)! It will be great to see all the photos stitched together at the end of the season from May to August, thanks to the rangers setting things up for us before we arrived. The ongoing on-the-ground phenology observations have also been no less exciting, though they are a bit more of a pain to collect when the mosquitos are at their most ferocious like yesterday!

6th July

The first twisting of the filaments of the Dryas (mountain avens) in our phenology monitoring! We’ve also been counting how many flowers there are in each of the phenology plots and we are now past peak flower time – now there will be fewer and fewer pretty coloured flowers, but watching the Dryas seed heads develop and twist round and round and the fluffy flowers of the Eriophorum take flight is beautiful too!

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7th July

A Team Shrub record for largest area surveyed with drones in one day – 3,000,000 meters squared. We now have 193,735 images (as of 15th July) and counting for this field season so far. As soon as the winds die down the drones are out – with three pilots in the field, there has been lots of drone action – different drones, different scales of investigation, different spectral bands, which together will hopefully give us a comprehensive view of vegetation change across the tundra.

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8th July

Our first group photo (minus Isla who hasn’t arrived yet)! Team Drone surrounded by tundra flowers and arctic willows.

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10th July

A milestone in the making – surveying all of our sites with GNSS (a type of GPS system) – a super precise way to know exactly where all of our markers and plots are. Around a week ago, we met with representatives of Canada Parks and it was very cool to learn that they also use GNSS technology when mapping historical sites – always interesting to see how people use the same technology in different ways.

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11th July

Perhaps the most exciting milestone of all (at least for Isla): Isla has arrived!!!  I have finally made it to the island after five days of trying.  Finally, on Tuesday the 11th of July my float plane successfully touched down in Pauline Cove as a seal curiously watched on.  Most amazing of all was that the “freshies” the fresh fruit and vegetables that had been sitting in a hot plane for more than two days were actually for the most part fine and still as fresh and delicious as vegetables tend to be in the North.

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14th July (Happy Bastille Day!)

Another Team Shrub record of 50 drone flights in one day! And, the excitement of finding a two-way radio in the tundra, several days after it was last seen.

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15th July

Active layer depth has reached its highest value yet at 68cm this week! Strong winds delayed some of our initial drone flying, but there have been lots of ground observations made. The metal probe we’re using for the active layer depth measurements is also a pretty good walking pole! And when dragged along the ground sounds a bit like that noise from that horror movie “The Shining’.

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Every day

Awe-inspiring sunsets – Qikiqtaruk is beautiful at all times of the day, but the evening light makes it all extra special! There are also many ittle moments of beauty in the field – be it a particularly fluffy patch of cottongrass, backlight lupines, a family of ptarmigans walking by, or just the sheer grandeur of the landscape, it’s been great to stop during data collection for a second to take it all in.

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So at nearly one month in there are many milestones to go.  What will we see or experience next?  Only time will tell…

By Gergana, Isla and Team Drone

Deep in the shrubs – birding the willows on Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk

Team Shrub guest blog – Cameron D. Eckert

It was little more than a flash in the willows, just for an instant and then vanishing, but one that stopped me in my tracks. Could that have been a hummingbird?

Qikiqtaruk is rapidly changing, and nowhere is that more evident than in the vegetation that thinly covers the island. A warming climate has brought earlier green-up, shifts in plant composition, and the expansion of shrubs. Perhaps the question I’m asked most often is how are these changes affecting the bird populations? Many bird species thrive in shrubs, so could more willows be good news? Well, it’s not that simple. Other bird species, such as American Golden-Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, prefer sparse vegetation and bare ground – and these Arctic nesting shorebirds, which face stressors throughout their ranges, have declined sharply in recent decades. Still I’m intrigued by the influence that shrub expansion may be having on Herschel Island’s bird diversity. To explore this question, I now bird the willows along east Ice Creek as part of my regular morning surveys.

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A lush expanse of Salix richardsonii along east Ice Creek on 5 August 2016. Photo C. Eckert.

Ice Creek, on the northeast corner of Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park off the Yukon’s Arctic coast, flows with melting snow and ice from the surrounding rolling tundra through an alluvial fan at the base of Simpson Point, and into Pauline Cove on the Beaufort Sea. The east tributary of Ice Creek features some of the island’s biggest patches of willow (Salix richardsonii) – mostly below knee height and sparse enough that I can easily walk through the willows along the creek. Green-up in mid-June rapidly transforms this brown tundra valley into a beautiful green world of willows and wildflowers. And there are birds.

The White-crowned Sparrow, an uncommon breeder on the island, is the species expected to be most responsive to willow expansion. Their clear and distinctive song makes them easy to detect, and this past June I observed two pairs nesting along east Ice Creek, with another singing on west Ice Creek, and one more on the alluvial fan. However, it’s not clear if the population here has changed – it was known to be uncommon in the mid-1980s, though long-term breeding bird surveys conducted by Park Rangers on Simpson Point hint at an upward trend.

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A male White-crowned Sparrow in full song on the alluvial fan, 18 June 2016. Photo C. Eckert.

Common and Hoary redpolls are also common in the willows along east Ice Creek. Typical of finches, their numbers are highly variable from year to year. Here they’re not dependent on shrubs for breeding, and I’ve found a few nests in drift logs along the beach at Simpson Point. This past June, a pair of Hoary Redpolls greeted me on almost every hike up east Ice Creek. Their chittering songs and calls, and habit of collecting bits of fluff were signs of pair-bonding and nesting building.

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A male Hoary Redpoll surveys its breeding territory along east Ice Creek on 10 June 2017. Photo C. Eckert.

My forays through the shrubs have yielded surprises. I’ve come across small numbers of Yellow Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers – common breeders on the North Slope mainland, but very rare on Qikiqtaruk. I’ve never heard one singing, and they seem fully occupied with feeding – wanderers to the island, but not breeders. In June I also spotted a female Varied Thrush, just the third island record, feeding along east Ice Creek; as well as an American Robin which is rare but regular on the island.

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Female Yellow Warbler, a rare visitor to Herschel Island, feeding among the willows along east Ice Creek on 17 June 2017. Photo C. Eckert.

It was last year, on 19 June 2016, that I found the bird which would firmly enshrine east Ice Creek in my daily routine. Walking through willows along the creek, I flushed a warbler that flashed bright yellow undersides, an olive-green back, and dark grey hood. This was an Oporonis-type warbler, and the three possible species would all be an extreme rarity here; so when it landed I focused on its face to check for white eye crescents or lack thereof to confirm which species. It perched low in the willows for just a few seconds and I could see bright white crescents above and below the eye. The first MacGillivray’s Warbler for Herschel Island – 1000 km north of its breeding grounds.

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A male MacGillivray’s Warbler, 1000 km north of its range, deep in the willows along east Ice Creek on 19 June 2016. Inset shows close-up of the skulking warbler. Photo C. Eckert.

Exactly a year later, on 19 June 2017, I was again walking through the willows along east Ice Creek. Watching, listening, and totally focused, when a tiny greenish flash caught my eye. It darted low to the ground along the edge of the willows. A hummingbird? Inconceivable! Over the next 15 minutes I saw the bird just three times and only for a few seconds, but it’s extremely small size (even for a hummer) and colouration (green back, pale buffy front) immediately brought to mind Calliope Hummingbird. It flew low to the ground, and was extremely hard to spot in the myriad willows. I decided to run back to camp and get my hummingbird feeder (yes, I brought a hummingbird feeder to the Arctic).

I was back and had the feeder set up in the willows within 35 minutes. I sat quietly and waited. Then by chance I looked over my shoulder and saw the hummer perched about 25 metres away. I got a great view and snapped my first photo. Then miraculously, the hummer did a fly by, circled around, and perched in the open on top of a nearby willow. I got great views in full sunlight, and much better photos. It vanished again into the willows. I carefully scanned the foliage, and there it was, just two metres away, but well hidden. I lined up a view through the branches and took a few more photos. Moments later, it flew again and appeared to be feeding on willow flowers. Then it disappeared. That was my last view of the hummer, and it never went to the feeder. My initial impression was confirmed – this was an adult female Calliope Hummingbird, the first for the Yukon and the Arctic. A staggering 1,800 km north of its breeding range.

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Herschel Island is well-known for rare birds, but still, this adult female Calliope Hummingbird, 1,800 km north of its breeding range, along east Ice Creek on 19 June 2017 was a total shocker. Photo C. Eckert.
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And there she was was – the Calliope Hummingbird perched just two metres away, but well-hidden in the willows along east Ice Creek. 19 June 2017. Photo C. Eckert.

It would be simplistic to dismiss such rarities as inconsequential, as their occurrences may well be early indicators of changing bird populations. Over time these well-documented records can reveal unexpected patterns.  I’ll continue exploring Ice Creek, tallying the familiar birds, and carefully watching for the next surprise visitor to Herschel Island.


Cameron Eckert is an ecologist who has studied the birds, wildlife, and ecosystems of the Yukon’s North Slope and Herschel Island for the past 25 years. As Conservation Biologist with Yukon Parks, he works with Qikiqtaruk Park Rangers to coordinate the island’s ecological monitoring program.

Herschel Island bird observations can be viewed or downloaded at www.ebird.org.