The Amazing Journey of Camels that Began 45 Million Years Ago

The world is unrecognizable now to the way it was 3.5 million years ago. During that time, our ancestors were just beginning to appear in Africa. There was a land bridge that connected Alaska to Russia. Also, giant camels roamed away around the Arctic, looking much like how they do today.

It’s amazing to learn that these desert animals once roamed the coldest places on Earth, as a recent study has concluded. According to this study published in Nature Communications, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that camels once roamed Canada’s coldest and northernmost territory alongside other more commonly known snow animals such as polar bears and grey wolves. Incidentally, the very physical features and characteristics that now protect them from the harsh desert climate would be the same features that protected them from the harsh winters. Wide, flat feet would’ve helped these camels traverse the snow much like they do the desert sands today. The same hump that serves as storage for fat would’ve been essential for a camel trying to survive the cold.

In the past, researchers have known of extinct camel species that went as far up as the Yukon Territory in Canada. This most recent discovery was located in Ellesmere Island, which is 750 miles north of the Yukon. A team of researchers from the Canadian Museum of Nature, led by Natalia Rybczynski, unearthed a total of 30 short bone fragments. According to Rybczynski, it took the team three field sessions to collect all the bones they currently have on hand. She explained that some of the fossils they collected in the field almost look like mere shards of ice.

Upon assembly, the fragments began to take form and resembled a cloven-hoofed limb reminiscent of ancient camels’. The next step was to employ collagen fingerprinting in order to analyze connective tissue placement from the bone fragments. These were compared to previous camel specimens that have been collected in the Yukon and also to modern day dromedaries. After various tests and comparisons, the research has concluded that the fossils came from an Arctic camel.

From those bone fragments, the researchers easily gauged the size of the camel’s leg. From that size, scientists have also concluded that this particular Arctic camel is at least 30 percent larger than the desert camels we know today. Apart from the differences in size, the Arctic leg fragments were otherwise very similar to what we would normally see today.

The camel from Ellesmere Island would’ve had to contend with temperatures that were at least 14 to 22 degrees warmer than how it is today. It’s still chilly compared to desert standards. Also, half the year in that area lives in all day total darkness. Previous discoveries also showed the other animals that lived in the area during that same time: beavers, badgers, deerlets, and three-toed sloths. It isn’t common knowledge, but camels actually originated in North America about 45 millions years ago even though they’re mostly associated with Africa and the Middle East today. They crossed the famous land bridge that was around 3.5 million years ago to Eurasia and even as far down to South America.

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