Fossils of a species of extinct giant camel have been discovered in the Canadian High Arctic by researchers from the Canadian Museum of Nature. This is the first evidence that camels, which originated in North America, lived that far north at one point. The fossilized leg bone fragments were found on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. The finding suggests that the lineage that eventually led to modern camels may have begun in the high Arctic. Many of the characteristics of the animals already suggested this: very large eyes, body fat stored in a hump, and wide flat feet, these are all traits that are common in many arctic animals compared to many more southerly relatives.
Testing done on the collagen found in the bone matches most closely the profile of modern dromedaries (camels with one hump) in addition to the profile of the Yukon giant camel, which is thought to be the ancestor of all modern camels.
Camels were once ubiquitous in the Americas, and only crossed over the Bering land bridge to the “old world” somewhat recently. Their extinction in the Americas occurred about 11,000 years ago, around the same time as most of the other megafauna there went extinct.
These new fossils were found over a period of three summers (2006, 2008 and 2010), and date back to about three-and-a-half million years ago, during the mid-Pliocene Epoch. The other fossils found at the site, when combined with other data records on the climate, suggest that this region of the High Arctic was at that time a boreal-type forest environment. That period in time was known to be quite warm, it is actually considered an analog for what future temperatures on the Earth may be like as a result of modern human-caused climate change. Regional temperature patterns varied significantly during that, much like future warming is predicted to. With the Arctic being very much disproportionately warmer than it is today, when compared to the rest of the planet. Of course if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the rate that they are, temperatures could vastly overreach those during the mid-Pliocene.
The new research is described in the March 5, 2013 edition of the online journal Nature Communications.
“This is an important discovery because it provides the first evidence of camels living in the High Arctic region,” explains Dr. Natalia Rybczynski, one of the lead-authors and a vertebrate paleontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature. “It extends the previous range of camels in North America northward by about 1,200 km, and suggests that the lineage that gave rise to modern camels may been originally adapted to living in an Arctic forest environment.”
The bones were found on “a steep slope at the Fyles Leaf Bed site, a sandy deposit near Strathcona Fiord on Ellesmere Island. Fossils of leaves, wood and other plant material have been found at this site, but the camel is the first mammal recovered. A nearby fossil-rich locality at Strathcona Fiord, known as the Beaver Pond site, has previously yielded fossils of other mammals from the same time period, including a badger, deerlet, beaver and three-toed horse.”
It was something of a challenge at first to identify the bones as those from a camel. “The first time I picked up a piece, I thought that it might be wood. It was only back at the field camp that I was able to ascertain it was not only bone, but also from a fossil mammal larger than anything we had seen so far from the deposits,” says Rybczynski.
“Some important physical characteristics suggested the fossil fragments were part of a large tibia, the main lower-leg bone in mammals, and that they belonged to the group of cloven-hoofed animals known as arteriodactyls, which includes cows, pigs and camels. Digital files of each of the 30 bone fragments were produced using a 3D laser scanner, allowing for the pieces to be assembled and aligned. The size of the reconstituted leg bone suggested it was from a very large mammal. At the time in North America, the largest arteriodactyls were camels.”
The bones were then definitively confirmed as being from a camel after the use of a technique dubbed “collagen fingerprinting”. The collagen profiles that are created this way can be used to easily distinguish different groups of mammals based on the specifics of their collagen.
“Minute amounts of collagen, the dominant protein found in bone, were extracted from the fossils. Using chemical markers for the peptides that make up the collagen, a collagen profile for the fossil bones was developed. This profile was compared with those of 37 modern mammal species, as well as that of a fossil camel found in the Yukon, which is also in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s collections.”
“The collagen profile for the High Arctic camel most closely matched those of modern camels, specifically dromedaries (camels with one hump) as well as the Yukon giant camel, which is thought to be Paracamelus, the ancestor of modern camels. The collagen information, combined with the anatomical data, allowed Rybczynski and her colleagues to conclude that the Ellesmere bones belong to a camel, and is likely the same lineage as Paracamelus.”
“We now have a new fossil record to better understand camel evolution, since our research shows that the Paracamelus lineage inhabitated northern North America for millions of years, and the simplest explanation for this pattern would be that Paracamelus originated there,” says 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.”
“The scientific paper also reports for the first time an accurate age of both the Fyles Leaf Bed site and the Beaver Pond site — at least 3.4 million years old. This was determined by Dr. John Gosse at Dalhousie University using a sophisticated technique that involves dating the sands found associated with the bone. The date is significant because it corresponds to a time period when the Earth’s average temperature was 2ºC to 3ºC warmer than the average now, and the Arctic was 14ºC to 22ºC warmer. The bones of the High Arctic camel are housed in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec on behalf of the Government of Nunavut.”
It will be interesting to see what the future of the high arctic where these camels lived will be with regards to modern climate change. Because of all the other stressors placed on the environment by humans, it will be very unlikely for any new species to emerge at any time into the foreseeable future. Species emergence is a process that takes a very long time in general, and mostly relies on having a large variety of species first develop in a healthy complex ecosystem and then opportunistically spread out and expand when there is a productive niche that they can fill. Modern human activities have largely diminished the possibilities for large animals. It is no surprise that with expanding human populations the majority of the megafauna animals of the world has already gone extinct, and much of the rest will likely follow in the coming decades. Just as the original North American camels did with large-scale human migration some 13,000 years ago.
Source: Canadian Museum of Nature
Image Credits: Julius T. Csotonyi