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The camels we are familiar with today are well known as denizens of the desert. That makes it all the more surprising that 3.5 million years ago giant camels roamed the high arctic. Scientists led by Natalia Rybczynskifrom the Canadian Museum of Nature have discovered the fossilized remains of a giant camel on Ellesmere Island in northern Canada.
Natalia Rybczynski, John C. Gosse, C. Richard Harington, Roy A. Wogelius, Alan J. Hidy and Mike Buckley published a paper yesterday in Nature Communications detailing the find of 30 bone fragments that at first resembled petrified wood.
The bone fragments were found 750 miles further north than previously known finds. Even though back then the region would have been considerably warmer than it is today, it still would have been covered with snow and ice for nine months of the year.
Certain camel traits, such as the humps storing fat to get them through times when food is not available and their broad flat feet the help them move through desert sands, would have helped them survive well in the arctic. Their large eyes would help them see to forage through the long winter months. Eyelashes that protect their eyes from blowing sand would be equally effective against blowing snow.
Camels originated in North America about 45 million years ago and migrated into Asia across the Bering land bridge about 7 million years ago. The land bridge once connected Alaska and Russia.
Scientists at the University of Manchester in England tested the collagen in the bone fragments and compared it to 37 different species to determine that the small pieces definitely were from a camel. The results most closely matched the dromedary, or one-humped camel. DNA degrades much faster than collagen so cannot be used in testing prehistoric finds. Even using the collagen the fact that they were able to test it had a great deal to do with the frozen conditions of the arctic.
The remaining camel relatives in the Americas are the llamas, alpacas, and vicuna living in Latin America. Previous evidence of the arctic camel was found in the Yukon in 1913.
This find adds new information to the understanding of the evolution of the camel. It also sheds new light on climate change. The find indicates that the entire planet averaged two to three degrees warmer than it does at present. That's about as much as scientists say the Earth could sustain today without going through catastrophic changes.
Laurie Kay Olson
Animal News Blogger