The Camels of Ellesmere Island

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3.5 million years ago, during a global warming spell, giant camels lived in the boreal forest of Ellesmere Island. These large, shaggy coated camels, with their iconic humps, (which store fat), were able to survive the long, cold Arctic winters.

Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, is located in the Canadian Arctic. This is where the remains of         a giant ancient camel were uncovered – the first camel ever found in the High Arctic. This amazing discovery was made by Dr. Natalia Rybczynski, a paleontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature.  

An analysis of protein found in the bones suggest that the evolutionary history of modern camels can be traced back to  the lineage of these giants. Most closely related are the dromedaries, (camels with one hump). The camels that we are familiar with in current times share evolutionary characteristics that enabled the giant camels of Ellesmere Island to thrive in the High Arctic. Dr. Rybczynski suggests that perhaps some specializations seen in modern camels, such as their wide flat feet, large eyes, and humps for fat, are adaptations derived from living in a polar environment,

Previous to the discovery on Ellesmere Island, the most northerly evidence of camels was in the Yukon, over 2,000 kilometers away. Mike Buckley at the University of Manchester in England was able to determine through “collagen fingerprinting” that the Ellesmere camel was from the same line as the ancient camel remains unearthed years ago in the Yukon.

Dr.John Goose at Dalhousie University determined an accurate age of the site on Ellesmere by using a sophisticated technique that involves dating the sands found associated with the bone fragments. This is significant, as it corresponds to a time period when the Earth was two to three degrees warmer than today. The Arctic was 14 degrees C to 22 degrees C warmer.

The Ellesmere Camel inhabited the High Arctic during the mid-Pliocene warm period when the area was forested and the broad channels of the western Canadian Arctic Archipelago were filled with sediment, forming a wide land bridge. Animal species moved freely across this open land connection, allowing the camel line of Camelidae to migrate into Asia to continue it’s evolutionary process.

Other fossil finds at the site, (wood, leaves, and other plant material), suggest that during this global warm phase these camels lived in a boreal-type forest dominated by Larch trees, and had plenty to eat. There was 24 hour sunshine in the summer, and months of darkness in the snowy winter. The camels grew heavy coats and survived on fats stored in their humps during the long winter months.

Camels originated in North America some 45 million years ago.  Todays camels are known from arid regions that extend from northern Africa to the Asian interior. Their nearest living relatives are llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos.

The Ellesmere Island camel fossil specimen is housed at the Canadian Museum of Nature’s research and collections facility in Gatineau, Quebec. The specimen forms part of the lateral surface of a large tibia, (the main lower leg-bone in mammals). The Ellesmere tibia is estimated to have been approximately 30% larger than that of modern camels. This ancient camel would have measured 9 feet, at the shoulder and weighed in at about 900 kilograms. (2,000 pounds). Other fossil remains found on Ellesmere Island were those of ancient black bears, a three-toed horse, beaver, deerlet and badger. 

The Canadian Museum of Nature is Canada’s national museum of natural history and natural sciences. It promotes awareness of Canada’s natural heritage through traveling exhibitions, public education programs and scientific research. They provide the maintenance for a 10.5 million-specimen collection. The museum’s legacy of Arctic research dates back 100 years to the first Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913.

About the Author

Rosemary and her husband Bruce own and operate Spring Valley Farms Llamas and Alpacas on Denman Island, British Columbia. She is currently actively involved with the Vancouver Island Llama and Alpaca Club. Visit Rosemary at llamapackingtours@gmail.com