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Ellesmere Island, the fossil-rich area of Canada’s High Arctic, has yielded yet another treasure. Thirty small fragments collected by palaeobiologist Natalia Rybczynski have turned out to be the mummified remains of a camel.

This is the most northerly discovery of camel bones on the planet.

Rybczynski estimates the animal would be a giant compared to the modern day camel. It stood 2.7 metres tall and weighed about 900 kilograms. This species would have likely been one-humped, grown a thick coat in the winter and eventually crossed the Bering land bridge to settle in the deserts.

Because the bone fragments were mummified, rather than fossilized, an accurate timedating method using collagen testing could be used. This proved that camels lived in Strathcona Fiord during the Pliocene era, 3.5 million years ago. Previous fossil discoveries indicated that beaver, three-toed horse, deerlet and a relative of the bear also lived here then.

“At that time, this area would have been more like a boreal forest, dominated by larch, peat and wetlands,” said Rybczynski, “and the average yearly temperature would have been about 0° C.”

During the mid-Pliocene era, when global temperatures were 2° C to 3° C warmer, fossil evidence from Strathcona Fiord indicates it was 14° C to 22° C warmer there than present day. Current climate models predict that within 100 years, there will be a similar global temperature increase of two degrees. Perhaps the accurate time-dating information obtained from these ancient ancestors of modern camels will provide scientists with a historical analogue to help them better understand the implications of a warming climate.