The Arctic's Hidden Biodiversity

Latest update June 16, 2019 Started on June 22, 2017

Rapid change is underway in the Arctic. We are heading to Qikiqtaruk to unveil the tundra’s hidden biodiversity – the elusive plant species that escape our sight yet might be key for shaping arctic ecosystems in the future.

June 22, 2017
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The science behind our journey

The planet is changing at an increasingly high pace, with the consequences of climate change reaching far across the Earth’s biomes. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the Arctic tundra, which is warming at around twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Our project will contribute to precisely quantifying ongoing and future biodiversity change across these unique yet threatened northern landscapes.

Science Our project will capture how plant biodiversity in the Arctic is changing in a warmer climate - shifts that might then echo through the whole ecosystem. Infographic: Gergana Daskalova.

A long-term perspective on Arctic change

Pointframing Year after year, scientists return to the same plots to capture temporal shifts in plant communities across the tundra. Photo: Mariana García Criado & Gergana Daskalova

A pin drops in the tundra. And then 11,999 more pin drops follow. Metal pins like this one are one of our key tools in monitoring the changes in plant communities on Qikiqtaruk. By recording the types of plants the pin touches every time we drop it, we can get insights into the number and types of species found from one year to the next.

Biodiversity change beyond the plots

Monitoring Extensive surveys from the ground and the sky help us discover the tundra's hidden diversity - soon the tundra will light up with orange flags, each one marking the precise location of a plant species. Photo: Kayla Arey.

With a warmer and greener tundra, biodiversity is expected to increase as plants slowly move northward from warmer climates or begin to spread from the warmest parts of the landscape to take over the once bare ground. To understand these shifts in tundra ecosystems, we need to look beyond the plots and capture the landscape context of biodiversity change - all the species lurking just outside of the plots and the types of habitats (for example, warmer or cooler, wetter or drier) they are most often found in. This so-called “dark biodiversity” can be the hidden source of future biodiversity change in the Arctic that might then go on to influence how the entire ecosystem functions.

Links across scales

GNSS We will record the precise location of the first individual of each new plant species we find - these locations will then be the link between our ground and aerial surveys, and between the plot-scale and landscape-scale biodiversity change. Photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin

We will combine plant and drone surveys to capture two complementary perspectives on biodiversity change in the tundra - the types of species that occur across these shifting landscapes, and the microhabitats they occupy. By linking ground and aerial observations, we will be able to discover the explicit hotspots of biodiversity across different types of topography and microclimate, and quantify if the rates of biodiversity change are intensifying with rising temperatures.

Stay tuned as we pack our pin flags (and many other boxes of equipment) and head north to begin our search for the Arctic's hidden biodiversity.

Meet the team: Kayla

Kayla quote Team member Kayla Arey. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

My name is Kayla (Nanmak) Arey. I am Inuvialuit from Aklavik Northwest Territories. I am also a scientist, with a degree in Northern Environmental and Conservation Sciences. Arctic research and engagement of traditional knowledge are essential for stakeholders to make informed decisions regarding the management of Arctic ecosystems. This is so important to me because the Arctic is more than landscapes and animals, it is my home, and my community.

Kayla Kayla on Qikiqtaruk in the summer of 2018. Photo: Cameron Eckert.

Meet the team: Gergana

Gergana Photo: Sandra Angers-Blondin.

I’m Gergana Daskalova and my motivation for exploring the Arctic stems from my love for heading off into the unknown in search of new discoveries and being part of a larger community with a common mission.

These two passions of mine have been common threads throughout my life, and on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Canadian Arctic, they come together. I didn’t expect to ever see the Arctic with my own eyes, yet now it feels natural to be eagerly awaiting my third summer in the tundra. I am one to first go to a place chasing the unknown and then return pulled by an urge to contribute to a vision and understanding extending beyond just me. This crossroad between individual drive and common aims, between international explorations and a sense of belonging has been at the base of many of my decisions in life. This is the crossroad that ultimately led me to the Arctic.

Village roads Roads like this one in the Bulgarian village Tyurkmen have played a big role in people's lives for many generations. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

Though there have been many crossroads, my journey started with the simplest of roads – a dusty dirt road in the Bulgarian village Tyurkmen. I am from probably one of the last generations in Bulgaria to have grown up running around village roads like this one. If you’re ever looking for someone here, chances are they are either in their garden, or “on the road”. Village roads are where grandparents wait for their children to return, where gossip flies fast as dust in the wind, where cow bells mark the beginning and end of each day. As a child, I rushed to the road every morning as soon as I heard the bells and watched first the cows, then the sheep and goats, and finally the buffalos head to pasture. We would play all day on the road until the buffalos returned as the sun was setting.

Harvest The last tomato harvest before the autumn frosts combines tones much alike those of traditional Bulgarian attire. Photos: Harvest (Gergana Daskalova) and portrait (Galina Daskalova).

Village roads are where many people, me included, first saw the world beyond their own homes. I grew up running between the garden and the road. Perhaps that’s what made me a quick runner – I was always dashing across wanting to see and experience life both in the garden and beyond. I loved hanging around my grandparents – we made endless jars of peach compote, turned pig fat into soap and seemed to always be watering the garden. I dedicated many hours to mastering the art of telling when a watermelon is perfectly ripe. But I was also always lured by the road, the far away neighborhoods (them being a whole half an hour walk away!), the dam and the fields. I grew up, and so did my world. Now it stretches way beyond the furthest field I dared explore as a child. I have found my passion and chased it all around the planet – from the wet and windy hills of Scotland to the hot red dust of the of Australian outback and now north to the Arctic. My world is much bigger now, but I am still very much split between the pull of home and the pull of the unknown.

Locks Behind this basement door, tens of jars of pickles and compote remain unopened. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

First people wondered how I could ever leave my garden. I was picking tomatoes and making tomato sauce till the very last day before my flight to Edinburgh where I would start my undergraduate degree in ecology and environmental science later the same week. I became one of the many villagers who hide away their gardening hoes, lock whatever doors can be locked and walk off into the distance. Then people wondered why I keep coming back. It is unusual for someone from a village like mine to go to places like Australia and the Arctic. What’s even more unusual, however, is for them to then come back to the village. Some of my gardening hoes were stolen the first year I left the village. My neighbor remarked: “well, you can’t blame whoever stole them, nobody thought you’d ever come back to use them again”.

Stones Once the roofs fall, rain begins to wash away the sod from the walls and soon only a pile of stones remain to mark what was once somebody's home. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

There isn’t anyone waiting by the road for me in the village anymore, the generations have turned and now I’m the one trying to preserve the traditions, home and garden I grew up with. Most of the houses on my road are empty and many say my village is on the way to becoming one of Bulgaria’s many ghost villages. Places ruled by memories, hidden or lost stories and a once jubilant past that may never come again. But I still see life in my village – different life to the life around me when I grew up, but life worth coming back for, nonetheless.

Palachinki "Katmi" - the Bulgarian version of pancakes - are traditionally made over a fire, with the fire lit at the crack of dawn, so that the stone heats up enough. Once I use to wake up to the smell of katmi, now I wake up early to start the fire. Photo: Yovina Daskalova.

Villages are changing and this new epoch for rural areas can impact cultures, ecosystems and biodiversity. But if nobody is there to see it, if nobody returns, then we will never know what these new types of villages might mean for life around us. Similarly, the Arctic is changing, and it is not enough to just go to the Arctic once to capture how climate warming is altering life across northern latitudes. We need a long-term perspective – the kind of perspective you gain by returning, listening and working with the people for whom the Arctic is a long-term home. I am learning to embrace my age-old dilemma, to use it as the fuel for my motivation in my research, but also in my life. I love going to new places, but I also love returning to the places that I’ve already been to foster a much deeper connection and understanding over time.

Landscape Though monotonic at a first glance, tundra landscapes support a surprising diversity of plants. Photos: Landscape (Gergana Daskalova) and portrait (Sandra Angers-Blondin).

I don’t remember ever thinking about the Arctic, or shrubs growing up. My interests in plants were mostly utilitarian – jams, compotes, pickles, stakes for the cucumbers that would turn into pickles. And yet, here I am today, with my mind literally spiralling like our tundra protocols do to capture hidden biodiversity. A surprising diversity of tundra plants lurks across these landscapes, and I am eagerly awaiting our return to Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island.

For the Arctic’s Hidden Biodiversity project, I will be teaming up with Yukon Parks rangers and scientists from the Arctic (check out Kayla Arey’s bio just above this post) and beyond (read more about Team Shrub and about Isla Myers-Smith here). We will combine extensive ground surveys of Qikiqtaruk’s flora with aerial monitoring using drones. Our goal is to capture the tundra’s dark diversity – the species that lurk across the landscape yet have never been recorded inside small-scale monitoring plots. These elusive species might be the ones that shape the arctic ecosystems of the future, and I am so excited to return to Qikiqtaruk and work together with the community of people on the island to shed light on the tundra’s dark diversity.


@gndaskalova @TeamShrub

For tales in Bulgarian, check out Градината на слънцето.

Expedition Background

A changing Arctic

Arctic From the ground to the ice and water, climate change is altering life across the Arctic. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

The Arctic is changing in striking ways. Temperatures are rising, sea ice is melting and permafrost is thawing, fundamentally transforming tundra landscapes. But change in the Arctic is not always obvious - in fact, sometimes it is hidden. Amidst shrubs, tucked behind stones and often surviving in the most improbable of places, many tundra plants remain unnoticed by scientists. Discovering this hidden biodiversity can help us understand how life on Earth is being altered at its northernmost extremes.

Dark diversity

Dark diversity Surprisingly, the tundra is home to tens and sometimes even hundreds of plant species, each with unique adaptations allowing them to survive in the Arctic. Photo: Gergana Daskalova

From afar, arctic landscapes might appear monotonic. Shades of white and blue blend into greens and browns as the midnight sun returns to the tundra. Looking closer, however, reveals a marvelously diverse world of plants. Plants are among the first species to respond to climate change. With taller statures, denser canopies and new species moving in, arctic plant communities are continuously being reshuffled as temperatures warm. But this might not be the full picture of biodiversity change in the Arctic. It is time to look beyond the traditional small-scale monitoring plots and discover what diversity lurks across the landscape but has never been detected before. These species represent the tundra’s dark diversity.

Web of life

Arctic life From plants to herbivores and carnivores like this snowy owl, life in the Arctic is made up of intricate connections. Photo: Gergana Daskalova

Capturing the Arctic's dark diversity and where it resides - in the warmer or cooler, drier or wetter parts of the landscape - will help us make predictions of how plant biodiversity will shift as the climate continues to warm. If a warmer Arctic means more species moving out across the landscape beyond the warmest hiding spots, these changes will echo through the entire ecosystems, influencing the plants, but also the animals that depend on them for food.

Everything is connected in the Arctic and when one species shifts this could lead to cascades across the interdependent web of life in the tundra.

Northern discoveries

Qikiqtaruk Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island Territorial park supports a collaborative long-term ecological monitoring program, making it a key focal site for Arctic research. Photo: Gergana Daskalova.

Our goal is to find and document the dark diversity of Qikiqtaruk - an arctic island off the Yukon coast in Canada. With eyes closely scanning the ground and drones capturing the vast Arctic landscapes, we will reveal some of the tundra’s best kept biodiversity secrets. As we embark on our scientific treasure hunt, researchers from across the tundra biome will go on a search of their own. Our dark diversity protocol will travel across sites, and with each newly detected plant species, we will be getting closer to understanding ongoing and future shifts across northern ecosystems.

Some of us never even imagined they would see the Arctic. For other members of our expedition, the Arctic is home. Qikiqtaruk brought us together and we are so excited to explore the rapidly changing tundra landscapes as a team.

Follow our journey as we discover stories of hidden biodiversity and unique experiences at the northern edges of the world.


@gndaskalova @TeamShrub

This expedition is in collaboration with Team Shrub's expedition The Greening Arctic led by Dr Isla Myers-Smith.

Keen to learn more about how climate change is transforming tundra landscapes and what that might mean for the whole planet? Check out The Greening Arctic!

Instagram Gergana Daskalova Team Shrub


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