Enormous Prehistoric Camel Roamed Arctic

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Remains of an extinct, giant camel have been unearthed not in a desert, but in the High Arctic, according to a Nature Communications report.

It’s the furthest north camel remains have ever been found and this one was on Ellesmere Island. The camel was also likely at least 30 percent bigger than camels are today. If you think of that in human terms, it would be roughly like an average-sized man standing about 8 feet tall, so these were some big camels.

“These bones represent the first evidence of camels living in the High Arctic region,” co-author Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature was quoted as saying in a press release. “It extends the previous range of camels in North America northward by about 1,200 km (746 miles), and suggests that the lineage that gave rise to modern camels may have been originally adapted to living in an Arctic forest environment.”

This particular camel, which was a close relative of a fossil genus called Paracamelus, lived 3.5 million years ago, but camels in general originated about 45 million years ago during the mid-Eocene Period in North America. They dispersed to Eurasia by 7 million years ago using the Bering land bridge that joined what is now Alaska to Russia.

It’s interesting to consider their history, as today we associate camels with desert environments and places like Egypt.

The Arctic camel instead lived in a boreal-type forest. What is now the Arctic was significantly warmer 3.5 million years ago. For example, it had temperatures that were chilly, but not ultra freezing cold. (Other researchers are studying such past climates to better understand present global warming, but the human effects on climate now are unprecedented.)

The discovery of the ancient camel could help to explain how camels evolved some of their distinctive physical characteristics.

“We now have a new fossil record to better understand camel evolution, since our research shows that the Paracamelus lineage inhabited northern North America for millions of years, and the simplest explanation for this pattern would be that Paracamelus originated there,” Rybczynski said. “So perhaps some specializations seen in modern camels, such as their wide flat feet, large eyes and humps for fat may be adaptations derived from living in a polar environment.”

(Image: Courtesy of Julius Csotonyi)

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