A recent study in the journal Nature finds that nearly 50,000 years ago during the ice age, the landscape was not as drab as once thought — it was filled with colorful wildflowers. These wildflowers helped sustain woolly mammoths and other giant grazing animals.
The study, “Fifty thousand years of Arctic vegetation and megafauna diet,” included Joseph Craine, assistant professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. It was led by the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen and was a collaboration of more than 25 academic institutions and research laboratories from around the world.
The study looked at 50,000 years of arctic vegetation history to understand how fauna had changed with animals and humans.
Historically, the belief is that the ice age’s landscape was covered by largely grass-dominated systems — called steppe. These grasses were replaced by mosses and other boggy vegetation when the ice age ended nearly 10,000 years ago, Craine said.
For the study, researchers visited museums in Alaska, Canada, Norway and Russia to collect DNA samples from inside the gut of frozen mammoths, bison, horses and rhinoceros that lived in the ice age.
Molecular techniques were used to look for plant DNA in each ancient animal’s digestive tract. Plant DNA was then sequenced and reconstructed to differentiate wildflowers from grasses.
“Once the gut contents and soils started getting sequenced, they began finding lots more wildflowers than before,” Craine said. “Nearly half of the digested plants were wildflowers. So, rather than having this really grassy, dull system like we believe existed, it suddenly was one that was very colorful.”