As the Academy celebrates biodiversity — the remarkable, beautiful tapestry of life on Earth — this year, we are delving into some of the fascinating locations our scientists have visited in the region and across the globe to study and help protect our planet’s phenomenally diverse and incredible species.
A botanist, a paleontologist, an architect and a retired lawyer planned a science trip to Newfoundland and Labrador. Armed with guidebooks, local floras and “The Shipping News,” the Pulitzer-prize winning novel by E. Annie Proulx, the trip’s botanist and the Academy’s Collection Manager for Botany, Chelsea Smith, PhD, was looking forward to investigating the plants of this Canadian province, as well as escaping the heat of July in Philadelphia.
What she found were the kindest people she’d ever met, surprisingly familiar plant species and — strangely — no moose.
Newfoundland and Labrador
Newfoundland and Labrador is the easternmost province of Canada. Newfoundland is an island, separated from Labrador, which is northwest of Quebec by the Straits of Belle Isle. Though southern Labrador and Newfoundland are considered taiga biomes, which is an environment characterized by conifer forests, the plant and animal life on Newfoundland does not entirely reflect this classification.
During the Late Glacial Maximum, Newfoundland was covered by glaciers and supported no life. It was not until about 18,000 years ago, after the glaciers had retreated, that this bald rock was recolonized. This relatively recent reseeding and the difficulties of living in this nutrient-poor and wind-battered environment has shaped the unique flora of Newfoundland. And it was on the west coast of this island where this tiny expedition began.
There are hundreds of plant species that grow in western Newfoundland, and most can be seen in Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This mountainous park is part of the northernmost reach of the Appalachian mountain system, and lasting marks from the last Ice Age are obvious even to non-geologists. The first excursion on this trip was to Western Brook Pond, which, despite its name, is a fjord. Glaciers carved out a 2,000 foot deep rift from the surrounding plateau, and as the glaciers retreated, this fjord was cut off from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Western Brook Pond has therefore, over time, turned into one of the purest lakes in the world.
Charmingly Familiar Flora
While the geological history was fascinating, Smith was more interested in the walk from the closest road to the fjord. This path, widened to allow vehicular access (i.e. delivering boats) to the landlocked lake, meandered through coastal bogs, an environment that requires specific adaptations for survival. Bogs are a specific kind of wetlands that are dominated by Sphagnum moss, which on Newfoundland number to nearly 60 species. Sphagnum has evolved to grow in wet, nutrient-poor environments by secreting acids that release otherwise unobtainable nutrients. Consequently, the acidity produced by Sphagnum means that any other plant species living in bogs have to also be adapted to acid.
The heather family (Ericaceae) has broadly adapted to flourish in acidic soils, which is why the New Jersey pinelands, dotted with bogs, naturally (and commercially) supports the growth of ericaceous plants like cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). It should not, therefore, have been a surprise to Smith that she was seeing plant species in Gros Morne that she often saw in New Jersey.
As it turns out, many of the bog species that are native to the NJ pineland bogs are also considered native to the Newfoundland bogs. Sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) was growing in abundance, the bright pink flowers dotting the brownish bog with cheerful color; there was rhododendron (Rhododendron canadense), leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) and huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata).
And, excitingly, Sarracenia purpurea, the same pitcher plant species that is both the emblem flower of Newfoundland and Labrador and common in the NJ pinelands. Carnivorous plants, because of their ability to obtain nutrients by digesting organisms like small insects, often grow in nutrient-poor environments like these bogs. All of these species familiar to Smith are all considered disjunct species, meaning that these groups are closely related but separated by a large distance.
Fens and Tuckamores
Adjacent to these boggy areas were a different kind of wetland, called a fen. Fens are wetter than bogs, with a neutral pH (not acidic), and are dominated by a group of grass-like plants called sedges (Cyperaceae). In the fens, pops of color appeared instead from the familiar blueflag iris (Iris versicolor). But, occasionally buried amongst the cottongrass sedge (Eriophorum), Smith came across multiple species of orchid.
There are actually 47 kinds of orchids found in Gros Morne and all of them rely on fungi for nutrients. In fact, these orchids are actually obligate parasites of soil fungi—an orchid seed must land near the right fungus in order to germinate. The orchid that Smith found in greatest abundance in these fens was the Tall White Bog Orchid (Platanthera dilatata). This species of bog orchid smells strangely of cloves, and is somehow both delicate and robust, sometimes growing over three feet tall.
Farther north into Gros Morne Park and moving up and out of the coastal bogs, the group began to explore an interesting feature of the island. Intense offshore winds have transformed the taiga forests of coastal Newfoundland into what is colloquially referred to as “tuckamore.” The white spruce (Picea glauca) and balsam fir (Abies balsamea) that make up most of the woody plant life here, are dense, twisted and stunted, some trees reaching only inches off the ground as they grow horizontally rather than vertically.
It is thought that these trees might never actually reproduce sexually and are just large patches of clones. These impenetrable woods create shady environments, perfect for the growth of many species of moss and lichens — food for the native woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou).
These myriad geologies and unique but familiar flora were just two days of the nine-day excursion. What followed were hills in the northernmost part of Newfoundland covered in reindeer moss (actually a kind of lichen, Cladonia rangiferina), rare fossil deposits of extinct sponge-like organisms in Labrador and humpback whales.
The Future of the Region’s Biodiversity
The impressive biodiversity of this region has been relatively well preserved — but it is facing some hardships. European colonists both purposefully and accidentally introduced much of the mammal life and all the amphibian life to Newfoundland. Moose inflict heavy damage on vegetation and even take a heavy toll on human lives. But culling practices have successfully reduced the impact of introduced moose in Newfoundland, which can easily be seen in the recovering swathes of forests that had suffered from over-herbivory, and the reduced number of moose-based vehicular collisions.
Support for national park interpreters is also hugely important; these nature educators effectively show visitors and inhabitants just how important the biodiversity of Newfoundland is to the health of the ecosystems that they live in.
Understanding, appreciating and conserving biodiversity has been at the core of the Academy’s science work since its founding in 1812. With 19 million specimens and counting, our collections are not only a window into the past, but also a critical tool for measuring the current and future health of all Earth’s species.
During Biodiversity Year, join us as we bring our understanding of the natural world from the lab to City Hall and beyond, so that together, we are a force for nature.
Written by Chelsea Smith, PhD, collection manager for botany; modifications and edits by Academy Editor