5:36pm

Wed March 6, 2013
The Two-Way

Fossils Suggest Giant Relatives Of Modern Camels Roamed The Canadian Arctic

Originally published on Thu March 7, 2013 11:49 am

Camels belong in the desert. That's what we've learned since grade school.

Today, NPR's Melissa Block talked to Natalia Rybczynski, a paleobiologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, who tells Melissa that fossils she has unearthed tell a different story.

The fossils, found on a frigid ridge in Canada's High Arctic, show that modern camels actually come from giant relatives that roamed the forests of Ellesmere Island 3.5 million years ago.

Finding the fossils that far north was a complete surprise, Rybczynski told Melissa. But apart from the wow element, this discovery can tell us important things about a much warmer world.

Rybczynski said that when these giant camels roamed Canada, the High Arctic was a much warmer place. (The arctic was 14 to 22 degrees Celsius warmer; the globe was two to three degrees warmer.)

"We're really interested to know how high latitudes respond to global warming and so the data that we're getting from the camel site and other sites are really important for ground-truthing our climate models," Rybczynski told Melissa. "If we can hindcast properly, we've got a chance at forecasting."

Much more of Melissa's conversation with Rybczynski on today's edition of All Things Considered. We'll post audio of the interview, here, a little later today.

Also, the Canadian Museum of Nature has released this video explanation of their find:

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Ellesmere Island, in the far north Canadian territory of Nunavut, is a frigid place - home to glaciers, walrus, polar bears. But Canadian scientists have now discovered that 3.5 million years ago, that island in the high arctic was also home to giant camels. One-humped camels that were 9-feet tall and weighed almost 2,000 pounds. Paleobiologist Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature found the camel's bone fragments. And she joins me now from Ottawa. Welcome to the program.

NATALIA RYBCZYNSKI: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: You know, when we think about camels, we're of course thinking about deserts and really hot climates and sand. How were they adapted to living way up in the Canadian Arctic?

RYBCZYNSKI: Yeah, so a lot of the traits that we see in camels today we think is suited for a very arid, desert-like environment actually would do quite well in a boreal forest environment. So boreal forest, I'm talking about the northernmost forests that we see in Europe, in North America, so getting into the tree line.

And in these areas, you would have very harsh winters and with snow, subfreezing temperatures. And so, traits like wide flat feet that would work so well on sand would also work very well on snow. In addition, when you look at the hump of the camel, we think of this as great for getting across deserts to provide fuel and energy for that.

But it's also very useful for an animal that is having to survive a long, cold dark winter.

BLOCK: Was this a huge surprise when you realized what you had up there, a camel?

RYBCZYNSKI: Yeah. Absolutely it was a huge surprise because this is the first evidence we have of camels associated with a boreal type forest. Previously, the fossil record has suggested that camels are associated with the Savannah type environment, in North America, mind you, but a very open type environment. And, of course, today, it's in semi arid and arid conditions. So finding them associated with a boreal type forest is completely new.

BLOCK: Now, you first found these pieces of bones back in 2006. Did you know right away what you were looking at?

RYBCZYNSKI: So initially, I wasn't even sure that it was bone. I thought it might be wood because it was such a buggy season. I had to wear a bug net, so it's a little bit hard to see. But on closer inspection it was clear it was a piece of bone.

BLOCK: What are the bigger lessons from this find, the bigger picture that you think this helps explain?

RYBCZYNSKI: Yeah, so I think there's two things that are really important here. One is that it's showing how Earth history and changes in the arctic have patterned modern biodiversity. I mean, I think it's really fascinating to think that the camels we see today with their specializations can actually be traced back to an animal thousands and thousands of kilometers away in a completely different environmental context.

And in addition, I think the times that the camel was living is also of interest because at that time, it was the mid-Plaecene(ph) warm period, so the dating shows that this animal lived at a time of global warming. And this is really important because we're interested in global warming right now, evidently. And what the fossil evidence is showing is that the high arctic was actually much warmer than what the climate models are predicting.

So the context, the environment that the camel was living in, was also of great interest.

BLOCK: So something was going on at that time that may be relevant to what we're experiencing now?

RYBCZYNSKI: Yeah, exactly. So based on previous work, what we were able to show is that in the high arctic, the climate was 14 to 22 degrees Celsius warmer than it is today. And this is really significant because at that time, the global temperature is estimated to have been two to three degrees warmer than today. And, of course, that two to three degrees is of great interest to us because looking forward for the next hundred years, it's been suggested that that might be where we are headed.

So we really should get to know how high latitudes respond to global warming. And so the data that we're getting from the camel site and other sites are really important for ground-truthing our climate models. If we can hind caste properly, we've got a shot at forecasting.

BLOCK: Ground-truthing?

RYBCZYNSKI: Yeah. So the idea being that we have - there's climate models that predict what we should expect to see in terms of temperature, but in the fossil record, we can use things like tree rings and isotopes and various techniques to actually estimate what the actual air temperature was at that time. And so that can help validate models.

BLOCK: Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature. We were talking about the discovery of a giant camel in the Canadian high arctic, 3.5 million years old. Natalia, thank you so much.

RYBCZYNSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: