Dandelions Roar to the Rescue of Polluted Oil Sands


It wasn’t much of a bouquet—just a single lonely dandelion. But it had been plucked from the middle of a barren stretch of polluted oil sands. Researchers knew right away that made it something special. (Canadian Press)

What are oil sands? What’s going on with oil sands in Canada? Get the scoop on this Geography in the News.

Behold the latest weapon in the fight against environmental pollution.
Photograph by National Geographic

Discussion Ideas


  • Why was that lonely Canadian dandelion so intriguing to biologists?
    • Oil sands tailings contain mining residues that are often toxic to indigenous plants. These residues are still being studied, but contain acids, salts, and other chemicals that create an extreme environment.


  • How did the humble dandelion become an extremophile?
    • It didn’t do it alone! There was a fungus among us. According to the Canadian Press, “The dandelion was hosting a symbiotic fungus that was literally eating what the miners had left behind” and converting it into carbon dioxide and water.


  • How have biologists and ecologists tested the fungus found on the dandelion?
    • Scientists treated tomato and wheat seedlings with the fungus, and planted them in coarse tailings. According to the Canadian Press, “Standard remediation seed mixes almost completely failed to germinate when planted in tailings. Treated with the fungus, 90 per cent of the seeds germinated.” (Wow!)


  • What challenges remain for scientists seeking to restore the natural oil sands ecosystems?
    • scale. The fungus shows great promise in helping clean up coarse tailings, but there are 800 square kilometers (309 square miles) of coarse tailings in the region.
    • fine tailings. The fungus does not impact fine tailings, the tiny particles of silt and clay that remain suspended in 1.3 trillion liters (343 million gallons) of water in giant tailings ponds.



The Globe and Mail: Dandelions found in oil sands tailings could help clean them up: researchers

Nat Geo: Keystone Pipeline and Canadian Tar Sands

Nat Geo: What is Petroleum? (section: “Petroleum and the Environment: Bitumen and the Boreal Forest”)

Oil Sands Magazine: Tailings Ponds 101

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