14 February 2016 Icelandic Natural History: Vikings and The Last Tree Standing
A Brief History of Iceland
It is believed that Iceland remained uninhabited by humans longer than most places on Earth. Then, around 800 AD, the Norsemen began to build ships that could safely carry them into the North Atlantic. The Norsemen were often referred to as Vikings and were believed to have settled in Iceland between 870 to 930 AD. These Viking settlers originally worshipped the old Norse gods from their home country and only later adopted Christianity. From 1262 to 1814 Iceland was ruled by Norway and then Denmark. It became independent in 1918 after World War I. When much of Europe was occupied during World War II by Nazi’s, including Denmark, Iceland was occupied by the British and then the United States. Iceland became an independent republic in 1944 following World War II and became a founding member of the United Nations.
Where are the trees?
One of the first things that I noticed upon arriving in Iceland (yes I did make it!) was: Where are the trees? The view after landing was like a black and white moonscape between the snow and the lava fields and rocks. The story is that when the Norse Viking settlers first came to Iceland the land was covered in forests. Over the years Viking settlers cut down trees to use for building materials and firewood. Then the sheep they had brought with them from Norway nibbled on any new saplings, preventing new growth. Once the trees were gone, the famous strong Icelandic winds were easily able to erode the soil away, and let's not forget the ash and lava from volcanic eruptions, all making the regrowth of forests even more difficult.
The most likely original forest forming tree species were the downy birch (Betula pubescens). Other native tree species that are found infrequently in Icelandic forests are rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) and aspen (Populus tremula), along with tea-leaved shrub (and sometimes small tree) the willow (Salix phylicifolia).
The downy birch trees generally grow between 3 and 5 meters tall. Compared to trees in Europe and North America this probably seems pretty small, but after a short time in Iceland it’s easy to imagine that anything taller would likely have great difficulty with the seemingly ever-present Icelandic gale winds.
And, if you’d like to see how quickly the Icelandic wind can come up, Google the vimeo video number 31675022 by Bjorgvin Valur in Stöðvarfjörður, Iceland.
An old Nordic joke, told to me by several Icelanders is, if you’re ever lost in an Iceland forest, just stand up! However Iceland is working hard to change this through an extensive forestry program, with rewards for landowners who plant trees on their property. If you’re interested in more information on Iceland’s forestry program just click on the link below! http://www.skogur.is/english/forestry-in-a-treeless-land/
Where are the animals?
The only terrestrial mammal native to Iceland is the Arctic fox. Arctic fox come in two colors, white and blue. The white fox are white in the winter and brown/white in the summer. The genetics are interesting in that the white color is from a recessive allele. White fox parents can only have white pups, blue fox parents can have both white and blue pups and mixed colored parents have mixed pups! Other mammals found in the Iceland wilds have been brought by humans, either by settlers for food, furs and skins like the reindeer and mink or transported as stow aways such as rodents. Farm animals and pets may accidentally be released or escape into the wild but are not classified as wild animals and due to the Icelandic climate, left to fend for themselves they do not often last in the wilds. Without many options the Arctic fox diet consists of birds, eggs, invertebrates and berries.
Over the years polar bears have made their way to Iceland, usually drifting on icebergs from Greenland. Up until 1994 Icelanders were allowed to freely hunt and kill any polar bear they found, due to the danger the polar bears posed to humans and livestock as well as the highly valued polar bear pelts. Since 1994 Iceland authorities have wrestled with the difficulties of deciding what they should do with polar bears that reach the Iceland shores. If polar bears are a threat to humans or livestock they may still be killed, however if it’s possible, financially and logistically, then it is possible that polar bears may be transported back to their natural habitat.
Using Punnett squares can you work out the probabilities that Arctic wolf pups of the following parents will have particular phenotypes and genotypes. When you think you've figured out the answers to the problems, let me know the probabilities that you came up with! Make sure to include phenotype and genotypes!
Problem 1: If you cross a homozygous recessive white fox with a heterozygous blue fox, what would be the resulting phenotypes and genotypes of the pups?
Problem 2: If you cross a homozygous recessive white fox with a homozygous dominant blue fox, what would be the resulting phenotypes and genotypes of the pups?
Is Iceland in the Arctic?
In an earlier journal I asked if you thought Iceland was in the Arctic or not. The first few days in Iceland I asked about a dozen Icelanders what they thought about Iceland's place in the world. The most common response was yes, Iceland is in the Arctic. I even took several tours with a group called Arctic Adventures. Several people pointed out that a small portion of Northern Iceland is within the Arctic Circle, and therefore, Iceland is in the Arctic. My favorite response however, after I asked the question was....Ya, don't you think it's close enough? My final thoughts on the matter? Even though it doesn't follow the strict science definitions of what makes the Arctic...the Arctic, I'm voting with the people that live in Iceland, so Iceland is in the Arctic!