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Researchers find first hardy Irish plant that beat Ice Age

Edel O'Connell

Published 18/08/2012 | 05:00

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THE history books will have to be rewritten after researchers uncovered a super resilient plant which survived the Ice Age in Ireland.

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Up to now most scientists agreed that Ireland's flora and fauna emerged or came here after the end of the Ice Age, some 15,000 years ago.

However, this latest discovery by a research team from NUI Maynooth, pushes back this date to a much earlier time.

The team, led by ecologist Dr Conor Meade, 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 in Co Sligo.

Researchers 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.

What emerged is 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, just as they did in Spain and Italy.

Survived

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

"We estimate the plants on Ben Bulben have survived for perhaps 100,000 years in and around north-west Ireland," said Dr Meade.

"We have much analysis left to do, but this discovery pushes us into a new understanding of Irish natural history.

"This plant survived, and so too, probably, did other plants and animals.

"Up until now when the natural history of Ireland was taught in schools and universities, students would be taught that no plant or animal around today pre-existed the Ice Age. Well this changes everything," he said.

Irish Independent

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