Science

Camel's Bigger Cousin: Arctic Fossils Reveal Majestic Furry Giant

By Sean Kane , Mar 06, 2013 08:29 AM EST

Scientists have discovered remains from a giant, furry camel that lived in the Canadian Arctic.

A team from the Canadian Museum of Nature found the remains on Ellesmere Island, the northernmost island in Canada, in the Nunavut territory.

The long extinct arctic camel was about 30 percent larger than its desert-dwelling cousins alive today. This larger size helped it retain heat better. This is because animals with a smaller surface area to volume ratio radiate heat slower than their counterparts with a higher ratio. This is the basis for Bergmann’s rule, which states that animals that live further from the equator tend to be bigger to facilitate heat conservation (compare the size of the giant arctic polar bear to the smaller American black bear that lives further south).

“Being big was something camels did very well,” Natalia Rybcynski, a research scientist on the team, told NBC News. “An animal today that would be an analogue is the moose - it’s huge.”

The remains that the team discovered are 30 fossilized bone fragments from the tibia bone in the camel's lower rear leg. It didn't look like much.

“You pick up everything that might be a fossil,” Rybcynski said.

Once the team returned to camp later that day, they realized they had something special.

“Oh,” Rybcynski said. “It’s not a piece of wood, it’s a bone!”

The team also found collagen protein in the bone fragments, which further helped them identify the camel remains. Because the fragments were found in frozen Arctic mud, the collagen was very well preserved. Collagen doesn’t yield as much genetic information as DNA does, but the collagen sample was preserved well enough for the team to deduce that the fossils came from an ancient creature in the camel family, proving that the Arctic camel was related to the modern dromedary camel, in addition to another extinct species, the Yukon camel.

The world was much different when the majestic, furry camel roamed the arctic 3.5 million years ago. Back then, the entire Earth was 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, and the region including Ellesmere Island was a startling 36 degrees warmer.

Many of the modern camel’s adaptations that we normally associate with life in dry deserts may have actually helped a camel living in the high arctic as well. Rybcynski points to a camels’ flat, broad feet, which help it walk across sand, and maybe snow. Camels’ ability to store fat in its hump no doubt helped an Arctic camel survive the dark and cold six-month winters that the region experiences.

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