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Frozen DNA tells Greenland's past

An artist's drawing of what life might have looked like on Greenland between 130,000 and 1 million years ago.

About 1,000 years ago the infamous Norseman Erik the Red gave Greenland its name, even though 85 percent of the country is covered in ice. And now, some of that ice is providing us with information about prehistoric life on the arctic island.

Part of the ice core that the researchers used to find the forest that existed in southern Greenland hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Scientists used ancient DNA the blueprint of life that exists in all living cells of plants and insects found in the deepest parts of ice cores that scientists drilled out of the ice sheet that covers most of the country.

Researchers created a picture of forest life in southern Greenland some time between 130,000 years ago (long before Erik the Red was banished to Greenland from Iceland) and a million years. Before the ice formed, southern Greenland was covered by a diverse forest wild with pine, spruce, alder and yew. Butterflies and moths winged their way among the trees and lived along with ancestors of beetles, flies and spiders.

Eske Willerslev and an international team developed that picture of early Greenland life by boring into the 2-kilometers-thick ice sheet almost to the bedrock. Fossils cannot tell the story because they are either hidden or have been scoured away as the glaciers expanded. Instead, the researchers took out the fine, tiny pieces of rock and soil called silt at the bottom of the ice core and used recently developed techniques to determine the bits of DNA left by the living things in the forest.

This research appears in the 06 July 2007 issue of the journal Science.