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article imageYukon fossil bones provide DNA, shakeup camel family tree

By Megan Hamilton     Jun 11, 2015 in Science
Ice age camel bones, discovered in the Yukon, are rearranging the camel family tree.
Until their extinction around 13,000, western camels were quite common in western North America.
Resembling today's dromedary camel, they also had a single hump and a long neck, but, their legs were longer, CBC News reports.
It's thought that the camels only made their way into the far north — Alaska and the Yukon — during a brief warm period about 100,000 years ago, radiocarbon dating suggests. Few of these camels made the trip north, and camel fossils in the Arctic are quite rare.
Fortunately, those that are found are frequently preserved in permafrost, giving researchers a chance to study their DNA.
Three fossils discovered in a gold mine in the Klondike in 2008 are the first western camel bones discovered in the area or Alaska for decades, said paleontologist Grant Zazula, who is with the Yukon's Department of Tourism and Culture, The Guardian reports.
Originally, scientists had thought that western camels were related to llamas and alpacas, which are native to South America, but now they have genetic proof that the camels which inhabited North America were more closely related to camels that inhabit Asia and Arabia.
"For us, the gold is the fossils because it's this incredible resource for understanding extinct and ancient animals of the ice age," Zazula said. Now scientists will be able to gain a better understanding of what led to the camel's extinction at the end of the ice age.
Over the past century, paleontologists used comparative anatomy to study camels, and they did this by dividing bones and fossils into two main branches — animals found in Arabia, Africa and Asia, and llamas and alpacas found in South America, Zazula said.
5 drunken revelers kidnapped Serge the Llama from a circus and took him on a tour of the town  inclu...
5 drunken revelers kidnapped Serge the Llama from a circus and took him on a tour of the town, including a tram ride.
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Paleontologists, he said, believed western camels were like "giant llamas" or "llamas on steroids."
They began to think differently in 2008 when miners, in the process of hydraulically stripping the earth uncovered the bones, which were so well preserved in the permafrost that they still held DNA, which is usually rare in mineralized fossils.
Zazula said he sent pieces of the bone to geneticists at the University of California Santa Cruz, and they were assisted by a statistician and a geologist, The Guardian reports.
The findings have been published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, The National Post reports.
A news release reports that evidence in the DNA shows that western camels likely split off from the branch that includes modern camels around 10 million years ago. Most lived in southern areas of North America, but some traveled north during a warm period of the last ice age about 100,000 years ago.
These findings are going to make other scientists re-examine other species as well, Zazula said.
"There's something pretty spectacular about holding on to a bone that's 100,000 years old that can tell us so much about the history of the past and the history of the land you live in," he said. "I think that's pretty spectacular."
During the Pleistocene, huge herds of western camels (Camelops hesternus) roamed much of western North America. Standing seven feet (2.2 meters) at the shoulder, this camel must have seemed a fairly imposing sight. As members of the camelid family, camelops had very unusual feet, with four toes reduced to two elongated digits, the San Diego Natural History Museum reports. Their toes were splayed, and that, along with a broad foot pad were adaptations that likely helped them when walking on rough terrain or soft sand. With graceful, elongated legs, the camels were very well adapted for walking long distances in search of food and water.
From studying the neural spines on the camel's vertebrae, scientists think that the single hump probably looked similar to that of a dromedary camel, although it was placed a little bit farther forward.
While most of us picture camels as being from the deserts of Asia and Africa, the camelid family actually originated in North America during the middle Eocene, some 44 million years ago.
More about Yukon, Ice age, Camel, western camel, camelops
 
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