Gathering precious seeds

Gathering precious seeds

Top image: Inger Alsos and UNIS students were recently at Hotellneset and collected seeds that will be stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo: Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS. 

This fall UNIS botanist Inger Greve Alsos and colleagues, students, and locals have gathered seeds from the Svalbard flora. These seeds will be the first non-nutrition seeds to be stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

18 September 2008
Text and photos: Eva Therese Jenssen

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened officially in February this year. The aim of the vault is to store duplicates of seeds from seed collections around the globe. Seeds from food crops that is. However, when the vault opened this winter, UNIS botanist Inger Greve Alsos wanted to conserve seeds from the High Arctic flora also.

– Being located in Svalbard, I thought it would be proper to also store seeds from Svalbard’s vulnerable flora, explains Alsos.

Vulnerable to climate change
Today around 165 vascular plant species survive on the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Of these 51 species (30 %) are red listed, thus likely in danger of disappearing if the conditions change in the near future. It is expected that the Arctic flora will be tremendously affected by climate change. Especially the High Arctic species are vulnerable, as they will be easily ousted by species that can tolerate higher temperatures, such as the dwarf birch, which already grows in the warmest spots in Svalbard.

The symbolic effect of ensuring the Norwegian Arctic flora for the future by storing seeds in the Seed Vault is tremendous. In addition such collection will ensure material for future studies.

The Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food endorsed the plan and Alsos applied to the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund for funding to collect seeds that could go into storage at the Seed Vault. She got NOK 110 000 to start up the work, with a specific aim to concentrate the collection of seeds from the red listed species.

Inger Greve Alsos.

Inger Greve Alsos. Photo: Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS.

This fall Alsos, together with colleagues, students and locals, has been collecting seeds from various locations around Isfjorden, including Kapp Thordsen, Bohemanflya, Adventdalen and Colesdalen. They have collected seeds from almost 100 species.

To have appropriate amount of seeds they have collected 2000 seeds from each species. They will check the germination rate of the seeds after 9 months of storage in the Seed Vault, and they will perform a new germination test after 18 months of storage.

Genetic back-up
– We lack knowledge about these species’ ability to produce ripe seeds that can ensure their further existence. The collection of seeds will give us invaluable information about germination rate of these vulnerable plant species – and provide a genetic back-up in case some of these species become extinct, Alsos says.

Although they have not been able to collect seeds from all the Svalbard plant species, they hope to continue the work next year. Alsos has applied for funding from the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund to do a thorough DNA analysis of the red listed flora species.

– So far we only have DNA data from 7 of the 51 species that are on the red list. Further analysis of the other 44 species can be done at UNIS, according to Alsos.

In addition the scientists hope to get a better estimation of the red listed flora populations in Svalbard.

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