|Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)||Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)||Planococcus halocryophilus|
|Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus)||Arctic Willow (Salix arctica)|
|Narwhal (Monodon monoceros)|
|Ribbon Seal (Histriophoca fasciata)|
|Greenland Shark (Somniosus microcephalus)|
Mosaic of images of the Arctic by MODIS.
Jeff Schmaltz - NASA Earth Observatory
The Arctic, otherwise known as the north pole, is the northernmost region of Earth. Most of the Arctic region consists of the Arctic Ocean and it's adjacent seas, but it also contains lands associated with eight countries: The United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, and Iceland. The warmest month in the Arctic is July, and average temperatures are below 50F (10C). During the winter months, average temperatures are sometimes as low as -40F (-40C).1
This region is currently being threatened by climate change. Increasing Arctic sea-ice melt and sea-ice shrinkage causes the release of methane from the ice in the permafrost regions of the Arctic. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, further contributes to the rising temperatures in the region due to the greenhouse effect. While there are large variations in the predictions of Arctic sea-ice loss, about half of all analyzed models show almost complete loss of Arctic sea-ice in September by the year 2100.2
Electron microscope image of Planococcus halocryophilus
Nadia C S Mykytczuk et al
Bacteria are everywhere! The Arctic is no exception. One of the many Arctic bacteria is particularly interesting, as it has been observed dividing at 5F (15C) and remains metabolically active at 25C. Lyle White, an environmental microbiologist from the McGill University team that isolated this bacteria, said: "We believe that this bacterium lives in very thin veins of very salty water" ... "The salt in the permafrost brine veins keeps the water from freezing at the ambient permafrost temperature ~(-16ºC), creating a habitable but very harsh environment." This discovery gives clues to where life might exist in other parts of the solar system such as Mars or Saturn's moon Enceladus, both of which have regions with similar environments to the enviornment where Planococcus halocryophilus was found.3
Although an environment as cold and harsh as the Arctic might seem like a place where plants would be completely unable to grow, life found a way! Many plant species grow in the Arctic, but there are some definite characteristics that most have evolved to adapt with this harsh environment. Two great examples of these hardy plants are: Bearberrys (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and the Arctic Willow (Salix arctica).
Bearberry were appropriately named so, as they are a favorite of bears after coming out of hibernation. These plants do, however, have a significant place in folk medicine. Some folk tales suggest that Marco Polo stumbled across the plant in China, and thought that they were using it as a diuretic. In the summer time, the leaves are sometimes picked and dried for use in various folk medicine preparations.4 While generally regarded as safe, Bearberrys do have the potential for adverse side effects such as nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, back pain and tinnitus, and should not be used during pregnancy, breast feeding, or in children or patients with kidney disease.4 5 6 Native American tribes use bearberrys and the leaves of the bearberry shrub along with tobacco and other herbs in their religious ceremonies. This preparation is used as a type of incense or is smoked in a sacred pipe which carries the smokers prayers to the Great Spirit. When this preparation is mixed with tobacco and other herbs, it is referred to as kinnikinnick, from an Algonquian word for "mixture".7 8
The Arctic Willow (Salix arctica) is not what you would typically think of when you imagine a willow. This willow is a short-growing shrub that rarely grows above 6 inches (15cm) high, and has adapted to the harsh conditions of the cold and rocky lands surrounding the Arctic ocean.9 Salix arctica is an extremely slow-growing but long-lived species, with the oldest known Arctic Willow, found in eastern Greenland, being 236 years old. Arctic Willows serve as a food source for Muskoxen, caribou, Arctic hares and lemmings, who feed on the bark and twigs, and for the ptarmigan, which feeds on the buds. The plant has also been used by the Gwich’in and Inuit people for medicinal purposes, such as for relieving toothache, helping to stop bleeding, curing diarrhoea and indigestion, and used as poultice on wounds.10
The Arctic is home to many different animals, from birds to sharks and everything in between! In order to maintain life in such a harsh environment, it is important that animals have evolutionary adaptations to withstand the cold temperatures and other unique challenges such as food scarcity. The white fur of the Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus), Arctic Hare (Lepus arcticus), and the Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus) is an excellent example of an adaptation that allows these animals to remain camouflaged in the snowy environment of the Arctic. In addition to the land animals, the Arctic is home to a large marine ecosystem. Some of the animals in this ecosystem include: the Narwhal (Monodon monoceros), Ribbon Seal (Histriophoca fasciata), and the Greenland Shark (Somniosus microcephalus), all of which have unique adaptations to allow them to be successful in their respective environments.
Three Polar bears approach the starboard bow of the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine USS Honolulu (SSN 718) while surfaced 280 miles from the North Pole.
Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy
No article about the Arctic would be complete without including the mighty Polar Bear(Ursus maritimus)! Technically, these bears are considered marine mammals due to the fact that they spend most of their time on the sea ice.11 Polar Bears(Ursus maritimus) primarily hunt for their preferred food source, seals , from the edge of the sea ice. In the absence of sea ice, Polar Bears are unable to hunt and live off fat stores. Currently, these animals are considered vulnerable due to the increasingly shrinking sea ice as a result of climate change, with three of the nineteen Polar Bear subpopulations currently in decline.12Polar Bears rarely live beyond 25 years old, with the oldest wild Polar Bear on record having lived to 32 years old.13These animals are also known for their superb swimming and diving skills; sometimes swimming more than 200 miles over ten days with dives that can last over 3 minutes when approaching prey.
In contrast to the carnivorous Polar Bear(Ursus maritimus), the Arctic Hare(Lepus arcticus) is a much smaller herbivore.14 15 The Arctic Hare, while closely related to rabbits, is different in several ways. The Arctic Hare is one of the largest living lagomorphs, growing to an average size of about 23 inches (about 26 inches including the tail). Typically, these animals weigh between 6 and 12lb, although some can grow to be over 17lbs.16 By far, the Arctic Hare's most successful predator is the Gray Wolf.16 While Arctic Hares in the more northern longitudes of the Arctic keep their white fur year round, individuals in the southern Arctic regions shed their coat in the summer to a grey or brown color in order to better camouflage with their surroundings.17
Greenland shark Somniosus microcephalus
NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program
Although the Arctic biome is home to many land species, one must not forget the diverse marine life that thrives in this inhospitable region. The Narwhal (Monodon monoceros) is a very interesting looking marine mammal , males sporting a long helical tusk, sometimes reaching over 10 feet in length. While the largest tusks appear in male Narwhals, some females do grow shorter tusks with a less defined helical pattern. The tusk is actually considered a canine tooth, and grows from the left side of their upper jaw, protruding through their lip. While extremely rare, in about 0.2% of male Narwhals, both the left and right canine can grow in this fashion, forming two tusks on the animal. While the Narwhal tusk might look like a weapon, it actually is a sensory organ that takes in sea water and tells the animal about it’s environment. Another interesting looking species is the >Ribbon Seal (Histriophoca fasciata), which sports two white circles and stripes in it's black or dark brown fur. These seals spend most of their lives in the water, rarely coming ashore, especially during the summer and fall months.18 During this time, there is very little known about their habitat, as they spend most of their time in open water.19
One other particularly interesting species is Somniosus microcephalus, the Greenland Shark. By far, the most incredible thing about this species is it's long lifespan. The oldest known Greenland Shark was estimated to be roughly 400 years old, making it the oldest living vertebrate on record.20 This species of shark is very large, averaging about 12 feet in length, weighing almost 900lb! Notably, there are reports that very large Greenland Sharks can grow up to 3,100lb, with a length of about 24 feet.21 22 These dimensions rival that of a Great White Shark, but the Greenland Shark is a far slower, and therefore less terrifying species. Indeed, the average maximum speed for a Greenland Shark is about 1.6mph, about half of the maximum cruising speed of the seals on which it often preys, and about 7% of the maximum cruising speed of a Great White Shark. Due to the fact that this species spends most of it's time in very deep water, the Greenland Shark has adapted to increase it's buoyancy by accumulating high concentrations of Urea and TMAO (trimethylamine oxide) in it's tissues. TMAO is toxic and can cause a "drunken effect" in those who consume the meat of the Greenland Shark. 23
Extremophiles are organisms that live in environments that would ordinarily be inhospitable to life. The origins of the word extremophile come from the Latin word extremus , meaning “extreme”, and the greek word philo , meaning “love.” As you might expect, these organisms love the extremes.What are some examples? Lets take the Thermophiles (thermo:heat; philo:love), for example. Thermophiles are organisms, most of which are from kingdom Archea, that can only live in extremely hot temperatures.
These organisms can only live in temperatures between about 106°F and 252°F (41°C and 122°C).1Lets compare this to humans (link), where a fever of 108°F can lead to seizures and even death2As we said before, Archea take up a large portion of the thermophiles, but eubacteria also represent a small portion of the extremophiles. In fact,thermophillic eubacteria are considered by some biologists to be among the earliest form of bacteria, and therefore one of the earliest forms of life on earth!3
Thermophiles are not the only types of extremophiles, though. Extremophiles, as the name implies, refer to a very large group of organisms that have only one thing in common; they love the extremes. Another group of extremophiles, also mostly consisting of Archea are the Acidophiles. Acidophiles, although mostly consisting of Archea, also includes regular bacteria and eukaryotes. Acidophiles are organisms that can only live in acidic environements with a pH (measure of acidity, lower being most acidic and higher being most basic) of 2. To put this into perspective, we should compare this pH to water. Most organisms on earth (besides extremophiles) require water at a normal pH to survive. Water, for the most part, has a pH of about 7. This means that Acidophiles can only live in environments that are about 1,000,000 times more acidc than the water that we drink every day.
One of our most exciting future features is the implementation of mapping data throughout the website. The implementation of this data throughout our website will allow for us to display locational data alongside the already rich data that we already display. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Implementing this data will allow us to customize the content that we provide to each user and create new map-centric features that allows our users to explore our tree of life in yet another way.
We plan to implement extinct species into the LifeMap in the near future. In order to do this, we need to effectively curate extinct species taxonomic datasets and integrate them with our current system. Once we have completed this daunting task, you will be able to browse through dinosaurs and other extinct species the same way that you would browse anything else on the LifeMap.
With the implementation of extinct species, our capacity to show evolutionary relationships improves. In the future, we plan to implement a view that allows the user to browse through life over time, showing both extant and extinct species at different poitns throughout time - effectively creating a "timeline of life."
Although the LifeMap Explorer is already an extraordinarily powerful and rich tool for gathering information, we plan to perpetually increase the amount of information that we provide to our users. Whether that be by implementing features that display data that we gather from outside sources such as conservation and population data from IUCN Redlist and trait information from The Encyclopedia of Life's TraitBank; or by generating original content in the form of articles and featured stories.
In the future, we plan on implementing challenges that users can complete for points and achievements. We hope that this feature will support our goal of making exploring the tree of life fun and interesting. Our goal is to engage users in a way that presents them with challenges that both entertain and inform.
In addition to expanding our database to include extinct species, we also plan to expand upon our already large taxonomic database to ensure that users have a comprehensive experience. Our current plans are to more than double our taxonomic database entries to over 2 million individual entries (eg. species, phylum, class, etc.).
Although we do tend to look forward here at LifeMap Explorer, we recognize the value in maintaining our current features by constantly working to improve the user experience on any features that we make available to our users. A few examples of things that we plan to further develop are: LifeMap Animations, search accuracy, account integration, social media integration, mobile optimization (potentially standalone mobile apps), and the quick links sections.
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Welcome to LifeMap Explorer! LifeMap Explorer is a modern interactive exploring and reference tool. Explore the entire taxonomy of registered species, or search/select a specific node to get started. We aim to provide information from many different sources in a way not possible with any other tool.
The LifeMap is a tool designed to allows users to effortlessly browse the tree of life. This tool consists of two primary components: the tree panel and the information panel.
The tree panel (left-hand side of the LifeMap) contains clickable nodes that either represent a species or another taxonomic rank. Starting from the left, the tree of life is drawn from the animal kingdoms, through the categories, down to the individual species. Select an item by clicking on it, or open or close it's children by double clicking. Items with white borders have children, and black borders do not. Items in the same group that are drawn wider have more extensive families than slimmer items in the same group.
The information panel provides a picture and a description for the selected item if available. You can also expand the information panel to see more and different types of information. The expanded information panel has a more complete description, taxonomic information, images, geospatial information and a section to save notes.
Exploring is easy! Open the tree and click around to explore. You can also use the Quick Links button for suggested starting points, then browse endlessly through it's connections in the tree panel. Or use search bar to look through all of our registered items.
Learn about the Arctic and it's inhabitants; from an over 200 year old shark to an other-worldly bacteria (quite literally)! Dive into this LifeMap Explorer original article featuring comprehensive integration with the LifeMap.