History and evolution of the arctic flora: in the footsteps of Eric Hultén


  • Richard J. Abbott,

    Corresponding author
    1. Harold Mitchell Building, Division of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, School of Biology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9TH, UK,
      R. J. Abbott. Fax: 01334 463366; E-mail:
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  • Christian Brochmann

    1. National Centre for Biosystematics/Botanical Garden, The Natural History Museums and Botanical Garden, University of Oslo, PO Box 1172 Blindern, N-0318 Oslo, Norway
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R. J. Abbott. Fax: 01334 463366; E-mail:


A major contribution to our initial understanding of the origin, history and biogeography of the present-day arctic flora was made by Eric Hultén in his landmark book Outline of the History of Arctic and Boreal Biota during the Quarternary Period, published in 1937. Here we review recent molecular and fossil evidence that has tested some of Hultén's proposals. There is now excellent fossil, molecular and phytogeographical evidence to support Hultén's proposal that Beringia was a major northern refugium for arctic plants throughout the Quaternary. In contrast, most molecular evidence fails to support his proposal that contemporary east and west Atlantic populations of circumarctic and amphi-Atlantic species have been separated throughout the Quaternary. In fact, populations of these species from opposite sides of the Atlantic are normally genetically very similar, thus the North Atlantic does not appear to have been a strong barrier to their dispersal during the Quaternary. Hultén made no detailed proposals on mechanisms of speciation in the Arctic; however, molecular studies have confirmed that many arctic plants are allopolyploid, and some of them most probably originated during the Holocene. Recurrent formation of polyploids from differentiated diploid or more low-ploid populations provides one explanation for the intriguing taxonomic complexity of the arctic flora, also noted by Hultén. In addition, population fragmentation during glacial periods may have lead to the formation of new sibling species at the diploid level. Despite the progress made since Hultén wrote his book, there remain large gaps in our knowledge of the history of the arctic flora, especially about the origins of the founding stocks of this flora which first appeared in the Arctic at the end of the Pliocene (approximately 3 Ma). Comprehensive analyses of the molecular phylogeography of arctic taxa and their relatives together with detailed fossil studies are required to fill these gaps.