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Where camel ancestors once roamed

March 09, 2013|By Monte Morin
  • This is an illustration of the High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period, about 3 1/2 million years ago. The camels lived in a boreal-type forest. The habitat included larch trees, and the depiction is based on records of plant fossils found at nearby fossil deposits.
This is an illustration of the High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during… (Julius T. Csotonyi )

Considering that early camels once roamed the area of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, it should come as little surprise that another ancestor of today's "ship of the desert" made its home in Canada's High Arctic.

After all, camels originated in North America more than 45 million years ago and migrated to Eurasia over the Bearing land bridge, according to scientists. The droopy-faced beasts were no strangers to higher latitudes.

But what has come as a surprise is the method Canadian and English scientists used to identify an assortment of small fossilized bone fragments on Ellesmere Island in the Nunavut territory.

In a study that appeared recently in Nature Communications, lead researcher Natalia Rybczynski, a paleobiologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, said the fragments looked at first like wood.

"The first time I picked up a piece, I wasn't certain until I got back to camp that it was actually bone," Rybczynski said.

Over a period of three summer seasons, scientists painstakingly removed about 30 fossil shards from the rugged terrain near Strathcona Fiord. After making three-dimensional laser scans of the pieces, scientists pieced them together like a jigsaw puzzle and compared them to enlarged scans of camel bones. They appeared to be part of a huge tibia, or lower leg bone.

If researchers had discovered the bone intact, they might have easily identied its origin. Because they had only a portion, they needed further evidence.

While DNA in the bones had deteriorated beyond the point of testing, researchers decided to use a new form of analysis called collagen fingerprinting. By testing fibrous proteins that were preserved within the shards, scientists were able to link the relics to modern camels, as well as a camel ancestor known as Paracamelus.

Rybczynski and her colleagues have estimated that the bones are roughly 3.5 million years old, placing the creature in the mid-Pliocene epoch.

Its habitat was also very different from today. At the time, global average temperatures were 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher, and the Arctic region was much warmer -- 25 to 34 degrees higher.

While not the same as the camel ancestors that roamed what is now the American West, including Los Angeles and the La Brea tar pits, the animals were related.

Xiaoming Wang, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said local camels belonged to the genus Camelops

Scientists believe that Camelops went extinct roughly 11,000 years ago, much the way horses and other large mammals died out --  due to over-hunting hunting by humans, and other factors.

Paracamelus, however, disappeared long before humans are believed to have arrived in North America over the land bridge.

"It was probably environmental or other changes that saw its demise," Wang said of Paracamelus. "Its extinction is somewhat mysterious to us."

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