Maynooth discovery on ice age survival

IF you think you might not survive the recession, take heart from a scientific discovery in Kildare, writes Henry Bauress.

IF you think you might not survive the recession, take heart from a scientific discovery in Kildare, writes Henry Bauress.

Researchers at NUI Maynooth say they have discovered the first evidence that plants survived the great Ice Age in Ireland.

Up to now most scientists agreed that Ireland’s flora and fauna came here after the end of the Ice Age, some 15,000 years ago. This new discovery pushes back this date to a much earlier time, long before the Ice Age.

The team, led by NUI Maynooth ecologist, Dr Conor Meade, and with collaboration from Dr Colin Kelleher at the National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin, developed a new DNA analysis method to unravel the complex history of the Fringed Sandwort, a rare cold-loving herb that only grows on the high slopes of Ben Bulben Co. Sligo.

PhD students Xiaodong Dang, an NUI Maynooth Hume Scholar, and Emma Howard-Williams collected the plant on mountain peaks all over Europe, from Spain and Italy up to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle and then completed detailed genetic analyses.

The new analysis method, based on a process called DNA melting, greatly improves the accuracy of existing DNA analysis, and helped to reveal previously unknown levels of genetic diversity in the Irish populations.

The study found that the plants on Ben Bulben are just as genetically ancient as populations in Southern Europe, indicating that they must have survived the Ice Age intact in Ireland, just as they did in Spain and Italy.

This pattern has never been seen before in Ireland, and is exceptionally rare in northern Europe.

Dr. Conor Meade said :”We estimate the plants on Ben Bulben have survived for perhaps 100,000 years in and around northwest Ireland.”

He continued: “We have much analysis left to do, but this discovery pushes us into a new understanding of Irish Natural History. Ireland was not left bare by the ice-sheet. This plant survived, and so too, probably, did other plants and animals.”

The work, which was funded by the Science Foundation Ireland Research Frontiers Programme, appears in the journal Molecular Ecology Resources.

- Henry Bauress