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Giant camel remains found in Canada's High Arctic


Illustration of the High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period, about 3.5 million years ago (© Julius Csotonyi)
Illustration of the High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period, about 3.5 million years ago (© Julius Csotonyi)

Cheryl Santa Maria, staff writer

March 6, 2013 — The first tangible evidence of an extinct giant camel has been discovered in Canada's High Arctic.

The fossil evidence consists of about 30 bone fragments which together form part of a camel's limb bone (© Martin Lipman)
The fossil evidence consists of about 30 bone fragments which together form part of a camel's limb bone (© Martin Lipman)

A research team headed by the Canadian Museum of Nature has discovered bone fragment fossils of giant camels in northern Nunavut.

The 30 fragments are about 3.5 million years old and were collected between 2006 and 2010 on three separate excavations. 

"This is an important discovery because it provides the first evidence of camels living in the High Arctic region," explained Dr. Rybczynski, a vertebrate palaeontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, at a press briefing.

"It extends the previous range of camels in North America northward by about 1200 km, and suggests that the lineage that gave rise to modern camels may have been originally adapted to living in an Arctic forest environment."

Today, Arctic temperatures can dip below -50°C -- which isn't exactly a hospitable environment for camels.

But during the Pliocene warm period, the Arctic was 14°C to 22°C warmer.

The fossils- which resemble pieces of wood - are the first mammal remains found at the site near Strathcona Fiord on Ellesmere Island, although plant fossils had been previously discovered there.

Researchers used a new technique called "collagen fingerprinting" to confirm their findings. By extracting collagen from the fossils, experts discovered that the Arctic camel is a close match to present-day one-humped camels and giant Yukon camels, also referred to as Paracamelus.

"We now have a new fossil record to better understand camel evolution, since our research shows that the Paracamelus lineage inhabited northern North America for millions of years, and the simplest explanation for this pattern would be that Paracamelus originated there," explains Rybczynski. "So perhaps some specializations seen in modern camels, such as their wide flat feet, large eyes and humps for fat may be adaptations derived from living in a polar environment."

A detailed write-up of the findings can be found online at Nature Communications.

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