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Canadian giant camels once walked the Arctic

March 6, 2013

When people think of Canadian animals, the usual top picks are moose, beavers and possibly polar bears. Camels seem a stretch, and yet a research team led by the Canadian Museum of Nature has recently identified fossils of an extinct giant camel in Canada.

While this may sound absurd today, these camels would have lived in a time where the High Arctic in winter was much like a desert, according to Dr. Natalia Rybczynski, a paleontologist from the CMN. A lot has changed in 3.4 to 3.5 million years. Nevertheless, the area still had unusually severe winters that lasted roughly half the year.

Rybczynski discovered the first bone fragments in 2006 on Ellesmere Island, Nanavut. Since then, Rybczynski and other researchers have discovered 30 fossils over three field sessions. Though the Fyles Leaf Bed site where Rybczynski worked also contained fossils of plant material, the camel fossils are the first evidence of mammals discovered at the site. 

Thanks to collagen fingerprinting, a new technique pioneered by Dr. Mike Buckley of England's University of Manchester, the bones have been confirmed as belonging to a species of camel. By using collagen, the dominant protein in bone, and chemical markers to detect the specific peptides within the collagen, a profile is created. With this "fingerprint" established, the closest matches found were the modern one hump camel and the Yukon giant camel. 

"It extends the previous range of camels in North America northward by about 1,200 km, and suggests that the lineage that gave rise to modern camels may been originally adapted to living in an Arctic forest environment," stated Rybczynski. The wide flat feet, humps of fat and large eyes that make camels recognizable today may have developed from living in the High Arctic. Estimating from the recovered tibia bone, they were also possibly nine feet at the shoulder, roughly three feet taller than a moose.

Those who want to talk about these findings can make calls to Canada using international calling cards.

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