Arctic megafauna thrived on pollen-poor plants

by Mary Caperton Morton
Monday, June 23, 2014

The Arctic landscape during the Pleistocene has long been thought to have been dominated by pollen-producing graminoids. By analyzing more than 200 permafrost samples spanning 50,000 years from 21 sites around the Arctic, scientists led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, found that before about 10,000 years ago the Arctic landscape was also greened by protein-rich herbaceous plants, known as forbs, which don’t produce much pollen.

These plants would have played a large part in supporting the large creatures — such as woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses and horses — that used to roam the region. “A diet rich in forbs may help to explain how numerous large animals were sustained; forbs may be more nutrient-rich and more easily digested than grasses,” Willerslev and colleagues wrote in Nature.

Between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago, plant diversity began to decline, and by 10,000 years ago, when many Arctic megafauna went extinct, woody plants and graminoids appear to have become more widespread, presumably in part due to decreased grazing.

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