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Arctic Camels

January 2, 2017

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

Transcript

Julius Csotonyi Illustration of the High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period, about three-and-a-half million years ago

Illustration of the High Arctic camel on Ellesmere Island during the Pliocene warm period, about three-and-a-half million years ago. (Julius Csotonyi)

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 a breeze to walk on sand. But camel fossils found in the Arctic have forced paleontologists to rethink the origins of those archetypal traits. Natalia Ryczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature says the fossils date back 3-1/2 million years, to when the Arctic was covered in 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 that 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.

Story by Susanne Bard

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