Giant ancient camels once lived in Canada’s high Arctic

When you think of camels, you probably think of them roaming around the desert, but what if I told you that camels were actually from the Arctic? That's what paleontologist Natalia Rybczynski, who works at the Canadian Museum of Nature, discovered when she unearthed mummified camel bones on Ellesmere Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

It took over six years for this discovery to come to light, with three different expeditions to the same patch of tundra on Ellesmere Island, in 2006, 2008 and 2010, where they collected over two dozen fragments of bone. The remarkable thing about these bone fragments was that they were mummified (dried and preserved), rather than fossilized (where the original biological parts are slowly replaced by minerals so that you end up with a rock in the exact same shape as the original parts). Therefore, the samples actually had dried bits of collagen — a protein found in bone.

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Using genetic samples from this collagen, it took a group of Canadian and British scientists three years to figure out what animal the bone fragments belonged to.

Molecular palaeontologist Mike Buckley, who works at the University of Manchester, UK, used 'collagen fingerprinting' to examine the samples, and determined that they were nearly identical to samples taken from camel remains found previously in the Yukon. Furthermore, they found that the samples from both camels matched those of the genetic line of camels that originated in North America, crossed the land-bridge across the Bering Sea and into Asia, between seven and eight million years ago.

Piecing together all the fragments, they suggested that the camel was about 30 per cent larger than camels today, roughly 2.7 metres tall and around 900 kilograms.

As Rybczynski points out, the traits that make the camel so successful in the arid desert environment closer to the equator would also make them very successful in the arid desert of the high arctic — wide flat feet that are good for walking on a grainy, unstable surface such as snow, its hump(s) to store water and fat for survival in an arctic winter and large eyes to see better in the low light of an arctic winter.

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At the same time, this find is important for what it says about the Arctic climate.

John Gosse, from Dalhousie University's Geochronology Centre, used a sophisticated dating technique to determine that the samples Rybczynski collected were from an animal that lived around 3.5 million years ago. This coincides with the mid-Pliocene warm period, which was a time when the high arctic was much warmer than it is today, which some have suggested is an excellent comparison for our present time and the near future.

“The camel is an ambassador for climate change,” said Gosse, according to the National Post.

"This is a super-important time analogue," said Rybczynski. "This is a period of time that's being referred to as a historical analogue for future warming."

Current climate modeling suggests that, of all the areas on the Earth that will experience increased temperatures due to global warming, it is the Arctic that will see the highest relative temperature rises of all.

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