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Labrador research uncovers oldest black spruce

By Kelly Foss

The highlands of Labrador have yielded a surprising find.

While conducting research in the area, Andrew Trant, a PhD candidate with the Department of Biology, discovered the oldest black spruce recorded for Atlantic Canada. At approximately 370 years it’s also one of oldest black spruce documented in the world. The shrubby tree is about nine centimeters in diameter and about head height. In addition, the old black spruce continues to produce seed cones and pollen – over a hundred years older than the literature suggests.

Mr. Trant has been spending summers in Labrador for the past three years doing fieldwork for his PhD dissertation with the Labrador Highlands Research Group under the supervision of Dr. Luise Hermanutz. His work is part of a larger initiative, funded by the International Polar Year (IPY), which looks at how treeline ecosystems are responding to climate change.

“As you move from the forest upwards towards the alpine tundra, the trees became smaller and shrub-like in appearance,” he explains. “The trees are so small because of the harsh growing conditions.”

Mr. Trant’s work involved using a specialized hand-drill that removed a thin core from the trees so that he can measure and count the growth rings to find out how they have been growing and how old they are. Ryan Jameson, a MSc student in Dr. Hermanutz’s lab, documented whether or not these trees were producing cones.

“The story of these forests is locked away in the rings of these trees,” said Mr. Trant. “Knowing the age of these trees gives us a lot of information about what conditions were like when they started growing and what conditions they grew best in.”

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this old tree is how it has been able to persist. For hundreds of years, the tree is producing very small rings, Mr. Trant noted.

“This means that it is just barely growing every year. But in the past 20 years, the size of the rings have increased dramatically. This is a pattern that appears to be holding true for other high-elevation krummholz trees in the area. After centuries of near dormancy, the warming climate is releasing them from an oppressive growing regime - a revolution, if you will.”

“These trees will lead the forest's response to climate change” he adds. “And we may just be scratching the surface here. This landscape is undoubtedly full of these dwarfed giants and studies like this will force us to rethink our assumptions of what old-growth forests look like. These forests look more like bonsai gardens.”