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Arctic Camels

March 19, 2013

Camels seem perfectly suited to life in the desert, but they may have evolved those traits in the high Arctic.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Ancient Arctic camels. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Most people think of camels as well-adapted to their desert habitat. Their fat-storing humps help them survive the lack of food, and extra-wide hooves make it easier to walk on sand. But the recent discovery of ancient camel fossils in the high Arctic is forcing paleontologists to rethink the origins of those archetypal traits. Natalia Ryczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature says the fossils date backĀ 3-1/2 million years, to when the Arctic was covered in boreal forest.

NATALIA RYCZYNSKI (Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa):

Possibly, the earliest ancestors of the camels were originally adapted for living in a northern forested environment, and some of the traits like the humps were actually originally specializations for surviving through the winter.

HIRSHON:

Wide hooves may have made it easier to walk on snow. And excellent night vision would have been useful for enduring months of Arctic darkness. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Illustration of the High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period, about three-and-a-half million years ago. The camels lived in a boreal-type forest. The habitat includes larch trees and the depiction is based on records of plant fossils found at nearby fossil deposits. (Julius Csotonyi)

Field camp at the Fyles Leaf Bed Site on Ellesmere Island, where the camel fossils were discovered. (Martin Lipman, Canadian Museum of Nature)