When camels roamed the Arctic
Asha Katz - March 6, 2013
John Gosse is used to answering questions about the earth. After all, the Earth Sciences professor’s expertise is in how landscapes respond to forces such as tectonics and climate change, the rates these processes occur and when, in history, they might have happened.
Answering questions about camels is, understandably, a less common occurrence.
And yet he’s credited with an important role in exciting new research published this week in Nature Communications, confirming that there were camels roaming the Arctic some 3.5 million years ago.
Tracing fossils back through time
The camel project first walked into Dr. Gosse’s life when he was guest lecturing at the University of Ottawa five years ago. Afterwards, he was approached by Natalia Rybczynski, a paleobiologist at Carleton University and the Canadian Museum of Nature. She asked if it would be possible to use his group’s cosmogenic nuclide dating techniques — which use chemical isotopes formed by interactions with cosmic rays to help identify the age of the earth’s crust — on her fossils.
The two struck up a research partnership, and it was on one specimen hunting expedition to collect samples on Ellesmere Island when Dr. Rybczynski found a 2-cm piece of fossilized bone. She held it up and boldly declared it was from a camel.
“I assumed it was a joke at first,” says Dr. Gosse, since camels had never been known to have ever lived north of the Southern Arctic. But after a year of Collagen fingerprinting analysis and dating the sand in which the fossil was located, Dr. Rybczynski’s prediction was confirmed: it not only was a camel, but it dated back 3.5 million years when the Arctic was forested and the archipelago channels were filled with sediment.
A unique facility
Currently, Dalhousie has the only facility in Canada with the capacity to perform this sort of cosmogenic dating. It runs tests for samples from as far away as Norway, Mongolia, Mozambique, and many other places. Dr. Gosse's lab hosts many undergrad and grad students, and one current grad student, Alan Hidy, assisted with a lot of the modelling necessary for this particular project.
Apart from tracing the camel to a location much further north than ever before, this research has given other important insights into camel evolution, as well as the Arctic’s landscape at the time. For example, it seems that many of the camel’s features, including its fat-filled humps and foot shape, were adapted for the icy six-month night experienced in the Arctic.
Implications for climate change research
Dr. Gosse also notes the importance of this research in the context of the current struggle to make people aware of the effects of climate change in Canada’s north.
“I see the camel as an ambassador for climate change and how sensitive the Arctic is to small changes in global climate,” he says.
Dr Gosse explains that at the time this camel has been traced back to, the average temperature on the planet was 2 degrees warmer than it is today, but their research shows that the High Arctic was 19 degrees warmer. The analysis offers a sense of how temperature differences are amplified in the arctic and how detrimental climate change could be in more modern times.
According to Dr. Gosse, there are still at least five more years of work before the project on the response of the Arctic landscape to climate change will reach its goals. Other teams and notable individuals on the project included researchers Dylan Rood and Susan Zimmerman at Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Mike Buckley who worked with the University of Manchester-UK team responsible for collagen fingerprinting of the camel.