Picture a camel. What kind of habitat is this hump-backed creature living in? You’re probably imagining a hot, dry, sandy desert. Now take that camel and move him way up in the Canadian Arctic, among towering pine trees laden with snow. 3.5 million years ago, that’s where ancient camels were living.

Natalia Rybczynski, a paleontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa was searching Ellesmere Island in Canada’s High Arctic when she and her team of researchers found what looked like a piece of wood. Back at the lab, the scientists analyzed the findings and discovered they were the remains of an ancient camel.

Rybczynski and her team analyzed the fossils and determined them to be 30 pieces of a tibia bone belonging to an ungulate that lived 3.5 million years ago. Ungulates are a large and varied group of mammals that support their body weight on the tips of their hooves. The group includes animals such as horses, zebras, moose, pigs, llamas, hippos, rhinos, and, of course, camels. (More about ungulates here.)

Most interesting to the researchers was the way in which the fossils were preserved—they were mummified. When an organism’s remains are mummified, or desiccated, the bones and tissues are preserved, sometimes so intricately that the patterns and colors from the organisms’ skin or hair are discernible. For a fossil to be desiccated, the climate in which it lies has to be arid so that all the moisture in the specimen quickly leaves and the reaming dry carcass can be mummified. (Read more about desiccation at ucmp.berkeley.edu.)

Because the fossils were preserved by desiccation, a molecule known as collagen, a protein found in bones, was conserved. While not as telling a genetic marker as DNA itself, collagen can provide clues to an organism’s ancestry based on how close certain characteristics of the collagen are across different species. The scientists found that this ancient ungulate was most closely related to the modern dromedary. It was closer in relation than the Yukon camel, the previous record-holder for most northernmost camel fossil ever discovered. Now, this new specimen takes that prize: it was found 750 miles north of the Yukon camel, which was discovered in 1913. Scientists think that, due to its close relation to modern, desert-dwelling camels and it’s northern habitat, this new Arctic camel could likely have been the species that made the trek across the Bering land bridge and settled in the desert, eventually evolving into the present-day camel species.

This 3.5-million-year-old ungulate was a monster—bigger than today’s camels by at least 30%. It weighed one ton and it’s shoulders were 9 feet high. It also possessed many characteristics that made it easier to live in the cold, dry winters of the Canadian Arctic—characteristics that remained with the camel and turned out to be useful for modern camels in today’s deserts. The climate in the region where the ancient camel lived was 20 degrees Celsius warmer than it is now. The ungulate lived in a boreal forest that had more foliage and wetlands than the area has now. Winters were severe, so the camel developed adaptations to deal with severe weather that help it cope with desert conditions now. It had broad feet that made it easy to walk snow, and now sand. It’s one large hump, characteristic of camels, and stored fat during severe weather when food couldn’t be found. Its large body had a small surface area- to volume ratio that allowed ancient, and now modern, camels to easily regulate body temperature and travel long distances in a shorter period of time.

This study is giving scientists a new perspective on evolution and how adaptations are often malleable. A modern species can have ancestors that lived in a climate very different than that of their descendants. Adaptations once useful in one climate can translate to become useful in another, completely different one.

Discover more at abcnews.go.com

Find the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.

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Published On: March 13, 2013

Laura Komor

Laura Komor

Laura is a student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, studying Biology and Business; and the publications assistant at the Paleontological Research Institution also in Ithaca. Her interest in evolution began at a young age, when her geologist parents would take her and her siblings trilobite searching in upstate New York. When she’s not in school or working, she assistant teaches at Cornell, and also at a state prison, where she works with current and formerly incarcerated people on prison and re-entry programming.

11 Comments

  • Brian says:

    Is the ancient camel more closely related to our current Bactrian Camels or the Dromedary Camels?

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  • Zain malik says:

    Wow I never knew camels where arctic animals. Just always see them in this harsh and dry desert.
    But more often the ancient camels-
    +camelus gigas (fossil)
    +camelus moreli (fossil)
    +Camelus sivalensis (fossil)
    Can be different from
    Camelus bactrianus
    Camelus dromidarius
    And camelus ferus
    Just like the arctic fox and the normal fox.
    So may be the ancient camels were arctic camels and they no longer exist. They might have different features to adapt in arctic regions.
    But the now camels are surely ‘SHIP OF THE DESERT’

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