Source: NBC News

Ancestor of the camel was an Arctic giant

By Nidhi Subbaraman

The ancestors of the modern camel included an Arctic giant that lived in chilly coniferous forests about 3.5 million years ago. The ancient ungulates were 30 percent bigger than living camels today, weighing about a ton.

Scientists pieced together a picture of this camel from a crop of 30 fossilized bone fragments found on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. It's the first evidence that camel ancestors lived so far north. The location and age of the bone fragments indicate that the camel lived at time when the planet was 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) warmer than it is today, when parts of the Arctic were covered in coniferous forests filled with larch and birch. The Ellesmere Island region itself was about 36 degrees F (20 degrees C) warmer than it is today.

"Being big was something camels did very well," Natalia Rybczynski, a research scientist at the Canadian Museum of Nature told NBC News. "An animal today that would be an analogue is the moose — it's huge," she added. A large body size would have allowed it to regulate its body temperature better during the winters and cover larger distances walking, she explained. Rybczynski and her collaborators described the fossil and its analysis in a paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications.

Today's living camels have broad, flat feet, to help them walk on sand. Those feet could have evolved in an Arctic camel to walk on snow, Rybczynski says. And the ability to pack away fat, as the modern camel does in its hump, could have been useful to an Arctic camel that needed to survive dark, snowy winters that were six months long.


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