Arctic botany amongst the fjords: a new annotated species checklist for Agguttinni Territorial Park

A team of museum botanists and guides travelled across the park on foot and by helicopter seeking out every plant and lichen species within the park.

Snow-capped mountain cliffs.
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Guest blog post by Paul C. Sokoloff, Lynn J. Gillespie, Geoffrey A. Levin

On northern Baffin Island, Nunavut – the northernmost territory of Canada and Inuit homeland since time immemorial – the tips of long fjords weave around towering peaks and harbour shrubby plants, mounds of lichens, and carpets of mosses and other bryophytes, all set in a majestic landscape known and stewarded by Inuit past, present, and future. This is Agguttinni, Nunavut’s newest and largest territorial park. A new study published in Check List and led by Dr. Lynn Gillespie from the Canadian Museum of Nature, documents the 141 vascular plant, 69 bryophyte, and 93 lichen species collected from this unique protected area.

Arviqtujuq Kangiqtua fjord and Atagulisaktalik valley, location of one of the team’s base camps. Credit: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The backdrop to this study is the Canadian Arctic ecozone. This vast region comprises approximately 40% of Canada’s landmass and a broad array of unique habitats, from expansive flat tundra to glacial peaks to rich wetlands. The plants that grow here are well-adapted to their environment. Most grow low, soaking up heat from sun-warmed soil and staying out of cold, drying winds. Many are covered in insulating hairs and can go from bud to flower to fruit quickly during the short Arctic summers. And while woody, spreading shrubs can dominate in the low Arctic, they become rarer further north; conversely bryophyte and lichen species become increasingly important components of the biomass. In this context, the 303 species found in Agguttinni represent a wide swath of Arctic floristic diversity.

  • Arctic Pyrola (Pyrola grandiflora)
  • Arctic cinquefoil (Potentilla hyparctica)
  • Black crowberry (Empetrum nigrum)
  • Whiteworm lichen (Thamnolia subuliformis)
  • Nodding catchfly (Silene uralensis subsp. arctica)

In 2021, Dr. Gillespie’s team travelled to Kanngiqtugaapik (Clyde River) to conduct a botanical inventory of Agguttinni Territorial Park, in partnership with Nunavut Parks and Special Places and with the support of Polar Knowledge Canada. Over the course of five weeks, the team, a fearless five including museum botanists and guides from Kanngiqtugaapik, travelled across the park on foot and by helicopter seeking out every habitat and plant and lichen species within the park.  The team established four base camps at the heads of fjords, within mountain passes, and in sheltered harbours, where all necessities were slung in by helicopter, including sleeping tents, kitchen shelters, a field lab for processing samples, and even a solar panel to take advantage of the 24-hour sunlight. Through the weeks on the land, the team found an efficient tempo of collecting specimens in the field and pressing back at camp.

Paul Sokoloff and Lynn Gillespie pressing Alpine fireweed (Chamaenerion latifolium) at Atagulisaktalik. Credit: Geoffrey Levin © Canadian Museum of Nature

While 2021 was a cold, wet year on northern Baffin Island, the challenging conditions were offset with good company, good food, and warming long hikes. The team searched through hummocky tundra, over gravel scree, in river valleys and on esker ridges, documenting the flora of every terrain within Agguttinni, while our guides from Clyde River, Jaypiti Inutiq and Leeno Apak, provided us with valuable insight into their lands and kept us safe in numerous ways. These wanders, and helicopter excursions from Kanngiqtugaapik, allowed us to thoroughly inventory and compare various habitats within the park.

The sheltered valleys and heads of fjords, far inland from the coast of Baffin Bay, were the most floristically diverse in the study area. At these sites, willow shrubs grow tall (well, at up to 1.5 m high, tall for Baffin Island), and a diverse patchwork of geology and topography is home to species found nowhere else in the park, including new northern-most Canadian records of Lapland Diapensia (Diapensia lapponica) and Flame-tipped Lousewort (Pedicularis flammea), as well as species rare on Baffin Island, such as Dwarf Hawksbeard (Askellia pygmaea) and Hartz’s Bluegrass (Poa hartzii).

Flame-tipped lousewort (Pedicularis flammea) at the head of Kangiqtualuk Uqquqtifiord. This species was found only in warmer inland valleys; our collections represent the northernmost confirmed records of the species in Canada. Credit: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Conversely, coastal habitats and inland valleys and plateaus proved to be less floristically diverse. Immediately adjacent to the Barnes Ice Cap, the recently-unglaciated zone harboured few vascular plant species and no lichens – a lesson in succession. However, amid this scour, large mounds of blackened moss, likely covered during the Little Ice Age, could be seen regenerating – new green growth amongst bare rock.

Even so, we encountered fascinating new botanical records in these environments, including the first records of Bruggemann’s Alkaligrass (Puccinellia bruggemannii) and Skult’s Shield Lichen (Parmelia skultii) for Baffin Island. On the Barnes Plateau, collections of Powdered Matchstick Lichen (Pilophorus caerulus), Starke’s Fork Moss (Kiaeria starkei) and Sprig Moss (Aongstroemia longipes) are newly reported for Nunavut.

Acutetip aulacomnium moss (Aongstroemia longipes), growing in the recently deglaciated zone in front of the Barnes icecap. This species is rare in eastern North America and was not previously reported for Nunavut. Credit: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

While these new records provide important new knowledge about the Arctic flora, commonly encountered species also provide important context about species important to ecosystem health and functioning, and some species proved to be unusually common in the area. For example, Mountain Woodrush (Luzula confusa), Four Angled-Mountain Heather (Cassiope tetragona), Hairy Rock-Moss (Racomitrium lanuginosum), and Orange Chocolate Chip Lichen (Solorina crocea) were encountered throughout the park. Arctic Mushroom Scales Lichen (Lichenomphalia hudsoniana) was also encountered in many locations throughout the park, despite its relative under-collection elsewhere in Nunavut.

Four-angled mountain heather (Cassiope tetragona), one of the most common plants in Agguttinni Territorial Park. Credit: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

The 1007 collections made by Dr. Gillespie’s team in 2021, deposited at the National Herbarium of Canada (CAN), serve as the biodiversity backbone of this current study. The authors examined an additional 386 existing herbarium specimens at CAN, Agriculture and Agrifoods Canada (DAO), and the Université de Montréal (MT), and from other institutions accessed through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). The vast majority of these existing specimens were collected during the Baird Expedition to Baffin Island in 1950. Seventy-four years later, these specimens still provide valuable insight into the biodiversity of Agguttinni.

This powerful combination of old and new specimens, brought together in this paper, more than doubles the number of plant and lichen species known from the park (from 136 to 299), and triples the number of known vascular plants from 45 to 137. It therefore provides a vital biodiversity reference to help in the management and conservation of Agguttinni Territorial Park. More broadly, it expands our understanding of plant diversity in northern Canada, a vast area that includes many under-explored areas. Studies like this also provide important baseline data for assessing future impacts of climate change.

With Thanks

We are grateful to the community of Kanngiqtugaapik for hosting us and this research on their land, Nunavut Parks and Special Places and Polar Knowledge Canada for supporting this work, Jaypiti Inutiq and Leeno Apak for their knowledge and protection on the land, Stéphane Caron and Louis André Grégoire for keeping us up in the air, Patrick Graillon and Linda Vaillancourt from Nunavut Parks for facilitating this work, Martha Raynolds, Helga Bültmann, Yemisi Dare and Julian Starr for excellent recent collections that were included in the study, and herbarium specialists at CAN, DAO, and MT.

Original Study

Gillespie LJ, Sokoloff PC, Levin GA, Doubt J, McMullin RT (2024) Vascular plant, bryophyte, and lichen biodiversity of Agguttinni Territorial Park, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada: an annotated species checklist of a new Arctic protected area. Check List 20(2): 279-443.

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