A man riding a camel

Paleobiologist Natalia Rybczynski (aka. “Dr. Dead Things”) was out looking for fossils way above the Arctic Circle in the remote Canadian tundra. One day when she was digging at a dig site called the Fyles Leaf Bed, which is less than 10 degrees latitude away from the magnetic north pole, she came across a fragment of something that looked like wood. It was just lying on the surface, kind of rust-colored and small enough to fit in the palm of her hand.

A map centered on the Arctic Ocean showing the location where camel fossils were found

At first glance, the fragment was assumed to be just a splinter of wood, a common thing to be found by scientists at the Fyles Leaf Bed — prehistoric plant parts. Upon closer examination, she realized it was actually bone.

Over a span of 4 years, returning to the site over and over, she managed to collect 30 fragments (between 0.5 and 3 inches long) of that exact same bone. However, even after the pieces were positioned, assembled like a puzzle, the identification of which species it belonged to remained unknown.

Then, one day they took a saw and nicked just the edge of it, and there was a really distinctive smell that came from it – it was collagen. Collagen is what gives structure to our bones. And usually, it doesn’t last too long and breaks down within a few years. But in this case, the Arctic had acted like a natural freezer and preserved it.

Two years later Natalia was at a conference in Bristol where she saw a colleague of hers named Mike Buckley demoing a new process he called “collagen fingerprinting.” Apparently, all species have slightly different structures of collagen. Therefore, if you get a collagen profile of an unknown bone, you can compare it to those of known species, and possibly get a match.

So, she mailed him one of the fragments to be analyzed and hopefully paired. He processed it and found a match – a camel. The 3.5 million-year-old fossil fragment belonged to an arctic camel.

Fossil evidence of ancient camels

Looking at the fossil evidence, Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature and her team figure it was about 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall at the shoulder, which is 30% larger than today’s camels weighing in at close to 2,000 pounds (900 kg).

According to Rybczynski. “There are several traits seen in modern camels that could have been very helpful for the High Arctic camel,” she explained. “For example, the wide, flat feet that are useful for walking on sand could also have been useful for walking on snow. In addition, the hump serves as fat storage, so this could have been essential for an animal that would have to survive a long, dark, cold winter. In addition, camels have very large eyes that could also be suitable for seeing in low light.”

Map showing the distribution of camels and related species around the world

So despite their strong association with the Middle East and Africa, camels were originally Arctic creatures residing in North America about 45 million years ago. Some of them crossed the Bering land bridge just 3-5 million years ago to Eurasia where they eventually migrated south to where we know they are now. The rest made their way down to South America, where they evolved into llamas and alpacas.

To sum it up, here is an excerpt from a speech on TedTV by Latif Nasser who had a very interesting viewpoint on why this discovery is so amazing:

“But at any moment, you could uncover some tiny bit of evidence. You could learn some tiny thing that forces you to reframe everything you thought you knew. Like, in this case, this one scientist finds this one shard of what she thought was wood, and because of that, science has a totally new and totally counterintuitive theory about why this absurd Dr. Seuss-looking creature looks the way it does. And for me, it completely upended the way I think of the camel. It went from being this ridiculously niche creature suited only to this one specific environment, to being this world traveler that just happens to be in the Sahara, and could end up virtually anywhere.”

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