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Museum expedition results in botanical inventory of Nunavut’s largest park
March 23, 2022
By Dan Smythe
On a wintry afternoon, botanist Paul Sokoloff opens the doors to a large gray cabinet in a botany lab at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s collections facility.
Stacked on the shelves are hundreds of herbarium sheets, each with a newly mounted specimen of a plant from Agguttinni—Nunavut’s largest, and newest, territorial park, which starts a short skidoo ride west of the coastal community of Kanngiqtugaapik (Clyde River) on central Baffin Island.
The plants are among a few thousand specimens collected by Sokoloff, project leader Lynn Gillespie, and museum research associate Geoff Levin during a field expedition to the park in the summer of 2021.
“Agguttinni is one of the most mountainous areas in Nunavut that I’ve ever visited, and just being there was spectacular,” says Sokoloff, in describing some of the more prominent features of the park’s 10,000 km expanse. The museum partnered with the department of Nunavut Parks and Special Places, which was interested in a botanical inventory of the park. The fieldwork was done in collaboration with Polar Knowledge Canada.
During their five weeks on the ground, the botanists fanned out from four base camps, and collected plants from a range of habitats. They explored coastal wetlands, travelled up deep fjords, and ranged across rocky terrain at the base of the Barnes Ice Cap. Access to the remote sites was enabled with helicopters, a service provided by Nunavut Parks.
The team also benefitted from the support of local guides and wildlife monitors Jaypiti Inutiq and Leeno Apak, who provided a reassuring presence with their knowledge of the terrain, weather, and wildlife. While plants were the focus, Gillespie notes that they saw plenty of snow geese, many lemmings, a few caribou and even some polar bears.
Since returning to the museum’s collections in Gatineau, Quebec, the team has identified more than 140 species of vascular plants—those with “roots and shoots” — with the characterisation of lichens and mosses still underway.
Some of the species are rare records for that part of the Arctic, including a few species of bluegrass, dwarf hawksbeard (member of the aster family) and Arctic rockcress (member of the mustard family). “We found most of these plants at the head of two fjords, areas of high plant diversity that we call ‘polar oases’,” explains Gillespie. Sokoloff was happy to find a sea sedge (Carex marina), the first record of it in northeastern Baffin Island.
Samples of leaf tissue have also been taken from the specimens for preservation in the museum’s biodiversity cryobank. Cecilia Eason, a student supported by Polar Knowledge Canada, was engaged to mount the specimens, and she continues to digitize them so the scans and collection data can be shared with the scientific community.
The result is an inventory that adds to the museum’s ongoing research project to describe and document the botanical diversity of Canada’s Arctic. A set of the specimens will also be shared with Nunavut Parks and Special Places, which can use the records to inform resource management and education.
A highlight of the Baffin fieldwork was a drop-in event for the residents of Kanngiqtugaapik. The botanists showed the plants they had collected, described their research, and listened to stories from the locals about the area’s flora
Sokoloff also describes a memorable workshop with some elders that was mediated by Kaalai (Caroline) Ipeelie, a heritage consultant and interpreter with Nunavut Parks.
“We sat down at our hotel, showed them the plants, and they shared their knowledge with Kaalai,” explains Sokoloff. “She has lots of experience on how to work with elders in a way that’s constructive and culturally sensitive so it was really powerful to work with her.” All information from the workshop was given back to Nunavut Parks to help with their conservation and interpretation planning.
Enjoy this video with Paul Sokoloff to learn more about Agguttinni and the museum's research project.