The camel may be the ship of the desert, but this even-toed ungulate is not peculiar to the Middle East and Asia, where it is found today with a total population of around 14 million. Researchers in Canada and England have found fossil fragments from a large camel that roamed the High Arctic three-and-a-half million years ago. At a latitude of around 80 degrees you don’t get much further north than Ellesmere Island.
The fossil fragments found by Canadian Museum of Nature palaeontologist Natalia Rybczynski, which looked like pieces of wood littered in the otherwise featureless sand and gravel of Ellesmere Island, came from the lower leg bone of a giant camel. With the aid of 3D laser scanning these bits of bone were assembled and aligned, but this was not enough to tell from which species the bone came. What could be deduced from the skeletal reconstruction was that the Ellesmere camel was some 30% larger than those living and spitting today.
Identifying the species was a task left to Manchester University biochemist Mike Buckley, who used a technique known as collagen fingerprinting to identify the Ellesmere animal as a camel similar in form if not size to the modern day Dromedary. The process of collagen fingerprinting involves extracting the dominant protein found in fossil bones, and identifying a series of chemical markers for the constituent peptides that make up the collagen. These features are then compared with a database of living animal species.
“We now have a new fossil record to better understand camel evolution,” says Rybczynski. “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. 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.”
Rybczynski’s findings have been published in the journal Nature Communications.