Camels evolved in the Arctic, say scientists

The ancestors of modern camels roamed forests in northern Canada, a new fossil discovery suggests.

Julius Csotonyi
High Arctic camels, like those shown in this illustration, lived on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period about 3.5 million years ago.

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 0 Celsius (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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.