biology question #174



Deion Christopher, a 27 year old male from Missouri asks on May 19, 2000,

Q:

Can you really grow plants from the seeds found in Mammoth feces? In national parks here in Missouri, after a controlled burning, naturalists set up transects and counted the plants that reappeared. In some areas they found species of plants that were extinct in the state until the seeds were able to germinate! If those seeds can survive for so long in the earth without rotting and still be able to germinate, then could seeds found in Mammoth's feces germinate also?

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the answer

Kevin Kruger, Royal Tyrrell Museum answered on May 18, 2000, A:

Many different types of plants have seeds or cones that need to be "induced" into germination by a source of heat or fire.

For example the Northern Pine cone when exposed to fire will lose its moisture. When the fire is out, the cone shrinks and cracks open exposing the seed to moisture and allowing it to germinate. This does not mean however that the seeds will be able to grow no matter how long they sit dormant before being exposed to fire. Plant seeds are alive, and therefore need a minimal amount of energy to stay alive. The oldest known (longest-living) seeds belong to lotus plants and can remain viable for up to two thousand years. Many other plants have seeds that live for hundreds of years. But so far as we know, the seeds found in the mammoth feces will have used up their energy stores and will not be able to germinate.

Deion Christopher answered on August 5, 2008, A:

Eight years ago I asked the above question, "Can you really grow plants from the seeds found in Mammoth feces?" The answer given squashed the notion of viable seeds surviving for more than 2,000 years and I was left feeling embarrassed for asking such a “dumb” question. Further research lead me to the correct answer found in scientific journals from the late 60’s (see below).

The answer from Kevin Kruger has been referenced thousands of times by students in middle and secondary grade levels. This ‘wrong’ answer has circulated throughout hundreds of thousands of storage servers on the Internet and it is now time to set the record straight.

In 2003 the Los Angeles Times ran an article describing 10,000 year old plant seeds that were successfully germinated. From the article: "Arctic lupine seeds frozen for 10,000 years, for example, grew into healthy plants once they were removed from Ice Age lemming burrows. The ice holds a zoo of perfectly mummified animals: fish, wapiti, sheep, mountain goats, moose, voles and birds."

The Canadian Museum of Nature covers these 10,000 year old viable seeds as well. And here is the original 1967 paper in the journal Science covering Lupinus articus by Canadian scientist Dick Harrington (featured on science.ca). It now seems that the possibility of germinating seeds found in mammoth feces is in fact plausible given the right circumstances.

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