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Unique “Snow Roots” Found in Mountain Plant

In a remote region of the Russian Caucasus Mountains, a previously unknown and entirely unique form of plant root has been discovered. The root belongs to the small alpine plant Corydalis conorhiza and, unlike normal roots that grow into the soil, these roots extend upward, against gravity, through layers of snow. Given this novel behavior, the scientists have termed them “snow roots.” “This is a completely new discovery," said Dr. Johannes Cornelissen, the senior author of the study. "Snow roots are thus far unknown and a spectacular evolutionary phenomenon." The team made its discovery high up in the Caucasus Mountains, where the ground remains covered in snow for much of the year. As the snow melted at the height of summer, the scientists noted that C. conorhiza plants were surrounded by a network of above-ground roots, stretching uphill and to each side for around 50 cm. During the spring and perhaps also winter, these roots extend into the surrounding snow and during the summer they die and decompose, which may explain how they had remained undiscovered. C. conorhiza also possesses normal roots which anchor the plant to the ground and take up nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Cornelissen's team hypothesized that the additional snow roots allow C. conorhiza to take nitrogen directly from the snow. Many mountain plants take up nitrogen from melted snow soaking into the ground only after snow melt. However, an impenetrable ice crust prevents C. conorhiza from doing this, and therefore the plant is forced to depend upon the snow roots. Further study confirmed that the snow roots are anatomically very different from normal soil roots, and that they are specifically adapted for the fast uptake and transport of nitrogen. This work was published online on June 4 in Ecology Letters. [Press release] [Ecologoy Letters abstract]