Faculty researcher Dr Mike Buckley was recently drafted in to identify ancient fossilised bones discovered on Ellesmere Island of the High Arctic. The fossils were collected by Dr Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature, but her research team had been struggling to identify them.
Important characteristics suggested the fragments were part of a large tibia, the main lower-leg bone in mammals. Digital files were produced using a 3D laser scanner, allowing the 30 fragments to be assembled and aligned. Dr Buckley then used recently developed collagen fingerprinting techniques to determine that the bones belonged to an 3.5 million year-old giant camel. This is the first evidence of the creature in the High Arctic, and the furthest North that a camel has ever been discovered.
The identification involved extracting minute amounts of collagen from the fossils. Using a collagen profile the bones were compared to 37 modern mammal species and a fossil camel found in the Yukon. The collagen profile was almost an identical match to the modern day Dromedary and the Ice-Age Yukon giant camel. Dr Buckley explained:
“This is the first time that collagen has been extracted and used to identify a species from such ancient bone fragments. The fact the protein was able to survive for three and a half million years is due to the frozen nature of the Arctic. This has been an exciting project to work on and unlocks the huge potential collagen fingerprinting has to better identify extinct species from our preciously finite supply of fossil material.”
Dr. Rybczynski says the discovery sheds new light on modern camels:
“We now have a new fossil record to better understand camel evolution, since our research shows that the Paracamelus lineage inhabited northern North America for millions of years, and the simplest explanation for this pattern would be that Paracamelus originated there. So perhaps some specialisations seen in modern camels, such as their wide flat feet, large eyes and humps for fat may be adaptations derived from living in a polar environment.”