Andrea Tirrell and Michael Cianchette conduct research on Mount Katahdin. The five-year study led by UMaine paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill will focus on six alpine plants – Bigelow’s sedge, highland rush, Greenland stitchwort, three-leaved cinquefoil, bog bilberry, and lingonberry – in the high tundra at Baxter, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks in New York. Photo courtesy Andrea Tirrell

A University of Maine professor wants to know if ancient DNA left behind in the mud and clay under Chimney Pond in Baxter State Park can tell us what kind of plant is most likely to survive global warming, and which ones may need a helping hand to avoid extinction.

A team of researchers led by paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill will examine 13,000 years’ worth of lake sediment found at four Northeast mountain ranges to determine which alpine plants carried here by glaciers in the last ice age are still around today, and which ones have been lost.

Researchers want to know what traits are shared by climate-resilient plants – seed size, plant height and leaf shape, for example, are indicators of a plant’s ability to reproduce and compete for sunlight and water – and which ones were shared by those lost over millennia.

“The challenge of having to save a million species from climate change can make you feel like we’re in uncharted territory, that we don’t know how to do this,” Gill said. “But the planet has gone through climate change before. The fossil record is our blueprint.”

That blueprint will be needed as Maine prepares for a warmer future. Climate models cited in Maine’s state climate action plan suggest Maine may warm by an additional 2 to 4 degrees by 2050 and up to 10 degrees by 2100, depending on the success of efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the science behind Maine Won’t Wait, two-thirds of Maine’s plants and animals are at risk from climate change impacts like temperature extremes, droughts and flooding. Without significant emission cuts, some Maine species will shift their ranges north, models show. Some may face extinction.


While Gill’s work is specifically studying alpine plants, the resiliency lessons could help Maine farmers prepare for a shifting growing season, conservation biologists curb salt marsh loss, and foresters prepare for climate’s impact on Maine’s logging and paper products industry.

Bog bilberry, or Vaccinium uliginosum Photo courtesy of Andrea Tirrell

Gill’s project, which received a $2.5 million National Science Foundation award, is co-led by University of Vermont associate professor Stephen Keller. The team also includes UMaine assistant professor Dudu Meireles, researcher Isaac Overcast, and several current and former students.

The five-year study focuses on six alpine plants – Bigelow’s sedge, highland rush, Greenland stitchwort, three-leaved cinquefoil, bog bilberry and lingonberry – in the high tundra at Baxter, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks in New York.

Researchers will hike and snowmobile up to the mountain lakes to collect lake sediment core samples, Gill said. In some cases, that means taking the sample through a hole cut into the ice; in others, it means sampling from a raft sitting atop two inflatable kayaks.


To collect the samples, the team will insert polyvinyl chloride piping purchased from Home Depot down into the lake itself and through 16 to 20 feet of compacted mud and clay until it hits bedrock to collect a fossil record of everything left behind since the glaciers retreated.


The extracted sediment will be split up into one-foot sections and hiked or snowmobiled back down the mountain and brought to the lab for analysis. The oldest sediment, which has been compacted the most, is two to three times heavier than the more recent upper-level mud sections, Gill said.

The DNA left behind in the mud and clay will tell them not only which alpine plants were left behind at the very end of the last ice age, and every era since, Gill said, but also plant traits, soil data and the climate conditions at the time when those plants flourished.

The researchers also will collect samples of plants still thriving around the high-elevation lakes – which endure harsh, windy winters and survive with little soil – and conduct common garden experiments in greenhouses and in the field to track their growth under different climate conditions, Gill said.

The team’s work – which will be shared with the public through workshops, a website and even a podcast – will culminate in the creation of models that can predict what may happen to these tundra-alpine plant species as the planet warms.

The researchers hope the interactions between these isolated populations and their changing environment over the past 13,000 years can tell them if the plants have adapted to the changing climate or migrated over time as a result of the changing physical environment.

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