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Archaeology

Ancient Arctic camel a curious conundrum

  • Pliocene Candian Camel.jpg

    The High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period, about 3.5 million years ago. The camels lived in a boreal-type forest that included larch trees; the depiction is based on records of plant fossils found at nearby fossil deposits. (Julius Csotonyi)

  • Pliocene Candian Camel 1.jpg

    The fossil bones of the High Arctic Camel laid out in Dr. Rybczynski's lab at the Canadian Museum of Nature. The fossil evidence consists of about 30 bone fragments, which together form part of a limb bone of a Pliocene camel. (Martin Lipman, Canadian Museum of Nature)

  • Pliocene Candian Camel 2.jpg

    View of Camp 2 at the Fyles Leaf Bed Site on Ellesmere Island, near Strathcona Fiord. Across the valley lay exposed tilted Devonian-era beds, partially obscured by low-lying cloud. (Martin Lipman, Canadian Museum of Nature)

  • Pliocene Candian Camel 3.jpg

    A fragment of the camel fossil lying in situ on the Fyles Leaf Bed site. The fossil looks very similar to wood. The fossil evidence consists of about 30 bone fragments, which together form part of a limb bone of a Pliocene camel.Found on Ellesmere Island, this is the northernmost discovery of camels in the Arctic, about 1,200 km further north than the Yukon camel.The fossil record from this area shows the camel lived about 3.5 million years ago, when the region supported a boreal-type forest.Ellesmere Island.."Fyles Leaf Bed site" refers to an exposure located about 9 km Southwest of the Beaver Pond site near Strathcona Fiord. The section was visited previously by John Fyles (Geological Survey of Canada), and briefly in 1992 by Fyles and Richard Harington. In 1992 they prospected for about 2 hours. The first detailed stratigraphic work on the site was by Adam Csank (supervised by Jim Basinger) as part of his M.Sc. thesis (2006). At the time Adam measured 40 m of section, but in 2008 John Gosse determined that the Tertiary section was 90 m in thickness. (Martin Lipman, Canadian Museum of Nature)

Ancient, mummified camel bones dug from the tundra confirm that the animals now synonymous with the arid sands of Arabia actually developed in subfreezing forests in what is now Canada's High Arctic, a scientist said Tuesday.

About 3.5 million years ago, Strathcona Fiord on Ellesmere Island's west-central coast would have looked more like a northern forest than an Arctic landscape, said paleobotanist Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

"Larch-dominated, lots of wetlands, peat," said Rybczynski, lead author of a study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. Nearby fossil sites have yielded evidence of ancient bears, horses, deer, badgers and frogs. The average yearly temperature would have been about 32 Fahrenheit.

"If you were standing in it and watching the camel, it would have the feel of a boreal-type forest."

The Arctic camel was 30 percent larger than modern camels, she said. Her best guess is it was one-humped.

Although native camels are now only found in Africa and Asia, scientists have long believed the species actually developed in North America and later died out. Camel remains have been previously found in the Yukon.

What makes Rybczynski's find special is not only how far north it was found, but its state of preservation.

The 30 fragments found in the sand and pebbles of the tundra were mummified, not fossilized. So despite their age, the pieces preserved tiny fragments of collagen within them, a common type of protein found in bones.

Analyzing that protein not only proved the fragments were from camels, but from a type of camel that is much more closely related to the modern version than the Yukon camel. Out of the dozens of camel species that once roamed North America, the type Rybczynski found was one of the most likely to have crossed the Bering land bridge and colonized the deserts.

"This is the one that's tied to the ancestry of modern camels," she said.