A research team led by the Canadian Museum of Nature has identified the first evidence for an extinct giant camel in Canada’s High Arctic. The discovery is based on 30 fossil fragments of a leg bone found on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, and represents the most northerly record for early camels, whose ancestors are known to have originated in North America some 45 million years ago….
The camel bones were collected from 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.
Determining that the bones were from a camel was a challenge. “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,” explains Rybczynski, relating the moment that she and her team had discovered something unusual.
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 artiodactyls, 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 artiodactyls were camels.
Full confirmation that the bones belonged to a camel came from a new technique called collagen fingerprinting that was pioneered by Dr. Mike Buckley at the University of Manchester in England. Profiles produced by this technique can be used to distinguish between groups of mammals.
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 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 inhabited northern North America for millions of years, and the simplest explanation for this pattern would be that Paracamelus originated there,” explains 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. 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 was 2°C to 3°C warmer than today, and the Arctic was 14°C to 22°C warmer.
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