Artist rendition of High Arctic camel, which lived in the northern reaches of Canada during the Pilocene warm period about 3.5 million years ago, in a boreal forest that was depicted based on plant fossils found in the same area.

Camels, Icons of the Arabian Desert, Originated on Turtle Island

March 07, 2013


Turtle Island has given much to the world over the millennia, including potatoes, cotton and a host of medicinal plants.

Now it turns out that camels—those iconic, Bedouin-bearing beasts that evoke images of the Arabian desert—actually evolved in a boreal-forested Arctic during a warm time in Mother Earth’s history.

That’s the conclusion scientists have come to after studying 30 mummified leg bone fragments found on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Researchers from the Canadian Museum of Nature confirmed that a species of giant, now-extinct camel used to roam in what is known today as Nunavut.

"This is an important discovery because it provides the first evidence of camels living in the High Arctic region," said Natalia Rybczynski, a paleontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, in a media release. "It extends the previous range of camels in North America northward by about 1,200 kilometers and suggests that the lineage that gave rise to modern camels may have been originally adapted to living in an Arctic forest environment."

Rybczynski and her team discovered the bones on Ellesmere Island, the museum said in a media release about the study, published on March 5 in the online journal Nature Communications.

The museum already houses fossilized remains of a Yukon camel, and the animals were thought to have originated in what is today North America 45 million years ago, the museum said. But this is the farthest north they’ve ever found bones, and the discovery provides conclusive proof that this is where they originated, the researchers said in their statement.

"It is surprising because usually we associate camels with arid and semi-arid habitats,” Rybczynski told LiveScience.com.

The 3.5-million-year-old bones were found in fragments, pieced together and tested for collagen content to determine they came from an ancient camel, one that was 30 percent bigger than the iconic version of the Arabian desert, Rybczynski told the Associated Press.

The bone fragments unearthed in the sandy, pebbly tundra were identified as camel-related through analysis of the minute bits of collagen, a protein found in bones, that they retained by being mummified as opposed to fossilized, AP explained. There have been other fossil finds too, the museum’s statement said, and in fact the evidence indicates the camel’s environment was more boreal forest than tundra.

Although it was warmer on Earth then—2°C to 3°C warmer than today, and with Arctic temperatures 14°C to 22°C warmer—the temperature still hovered near freezing. The plethora of snow possibly helped the camel’s hooves adapt to the sand that it roams in today, the researchers said. 

"Other specialized traits seen in modern camels may also have served well in an Arctic realm," the researchers wrote in their paper. "For example their wide flat feet function well on soft substrates, such as sand or snow. Their iconic hump(s), containing fat, also may have been adaptive. As seen in high-latitude ungulates today, fat deposits could have been critically important for allowing populations to survive and reproduce in harsh climates characterized by six-month-long, cold, winters."


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