Fifty thousand years of Arctic vegetation and megafaunal diet

Eske Willerslev*, John Davison, Mari Moora, Martin Zobel, Eric Coissac, Mary E. Edwards, Eline D. Lorenzen, Mette Vestergård, Galina Gussarova, James Haile, Joseph Craine, Ludovic Gielly, Sanne Boessenkool, Laura S. Epp, Peter B. Pearman, Rachid Cheddadi, David Murray, Kari Anne Bråthen, Nigel Yoccoz, Heather BinneyCorinne Cruaud, Patrick Wincker, Tomasz Goslar, Inger Greve Alsos, Eva Bellemain, Anne Krag Brysting, Reidar Elven, Jørn Henrik Sønstebø, Julian Murton, Andrei Sher, Morten Rasmussen, Regin Rønn, Tobias Mourier, Alan Cooper, Jeremy Austin, Per Möller, Duane Froese, Grant Zazula, François Pompanon, Delphine Rioux, Vincent Niderkorn, Alexei Tikhonov, Grigoriy Savvinov, Richard G. Roberts, Ross D.E. Macphee, M. Thomas P. Gilbert, Kurt H. Kjær, Ludovic Orlando, Christian Brochmann, Pierre Taberlet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

429 Scopus citations


Although it is generally agreed that the Arctic flora is among the youngest and least diverse on Earth, the processes that shaped it are poorly understood. Here we present 50 thousand years (kyr) of Arctic vegetation history, derived from the first large-scale ancient DNA metabarcoding study of circumpolar plant diversity. For this interval we also explore nematode diversity as a proxy for modelling vegetation cover and soil quality, and diets of herbivorous megafaunal mammals, many of which became extinct around 10 kyr bp (before present). For much of the period investigated, Arctic vegetation consisted of dry steppe-tundra dominated by forbs (non-graminoid herbaceous vascular plants). During the Last Glacial Maximum (25-15 kyr bp), diversity declined markedly, although forbs remained dominant. Much changed after 10 kyr bp, with the appearance of moist tundra dominated by woody plants and graminoids. Our analyses indicate that both graminoids and forbs would have featured in megafaunal diets. As such, our findings question the predominance of a Late Quaternary graminoid-dominated Arctic mammoth steppe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-51
Number of pages5
Issue number7486
StatePublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements We thank A. Lister, R. D. Guthrie, M. Hofreiter and L. Parducci for thoughts and discussions on our findings and K. Andersen for help identifying possible contamination. We thank T. B. Brand, P. S. Olsen, V. Mirré, L. J. Gillespie, J. M. Saarela, J. Doubt, M. Lomonosova, D. Shaulo, J. E. Eriksen, S. Ickert-Bond, T. Ager, D. Bielman, M. Hajibabaei, A. Telka and S. Zimov for help and providing samples. We thank the Danish National Sequencing Centre. This work was supported by the European Union 6th framework project ECOCHANGE (GOCE-2006-036866, coordinated by P.T.), the Danish National Research Foundation (Centre of Excellence to E.W.), the European Regional Development Fund (Centre of Excellence FIBIR and IUT 20-28 to J.D., M.M. and M.Z.), the Research Council of Norway (191627/V40 to C.B.), the Australian Research Council (DP0558446 to R.G.R.), a Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship (PIOF-GA-2009-253376 to E.D.L.) and a Carlsberg Foundation Fellowship (to M.V.).

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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