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.
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