Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Camels on ice...

Every now and then an extinct species is discovered in the last place on Earth that you might expect to look. Today, is no exception with the discovery of a 3.5 million year old camel in the High Arctic. A Canadian research team, helped by scientists at The University of Manchester, has discovered the first evidence of an extinct giant camel in what is now a very inhospitable place (especially for camels!). The fossil was identified from the remarkable preservation of the protein collagen (that all so important flexible component in every bone of your body) from bone fragments unearthed on Ellsmere Island. The unique nature of the collegen allowed the researchers to identify it was a camel...as without this protein 'fingerprint', it was merely shattered bone and of little value. These now valuable bone fragments mark the furthest North that a camel has ever been found.

The fossils were collected over three summers in 2006, 2008 and 2010 by Dr. Natalia Rybczynski, a vertebrate paleontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature. Some important morphological  features suggested to the team that the fossil fragments were part of a large tibia (main lower-leg bone in vertebrates with legs!). Digital files of each of the fossil bone fragments were produced using a 3D laser scanner, allowing for the jigsaw of bone pieces to be assembled and aligned.

However, even when the bone was reassembled it was still unclear as to which species the bone came from. So the researchers enlisted the help of Dr. Mike Buckley from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology. He used the pioneering new technique called “collagen fingerprinting” to identify the animal from the type of collegen protein (below) recovered from the bone fragments.

Mike did this by extracting minute amounts the 'fossil' collagen, searching for chemical markers for the building blocks of the collegen protein (peptides). Mike was able to generate a identifiable collagen 'fingerprint' (profile) for the fossil bone, indicating he had bagged a camel! What is quite fascinating, is that the fossil species collegen 'fingerprint' was almost identical to the modern day Dromedary camal. This giant camel was roughly 30% larger than living camel species...which is pretty big. Next time your stood next to a camel...try adding 30% to its size!

Slightly warmer camel!
Dr. Rybczynski was keen to point out that, “These bones represent the first evidence of camels living in the High Arctic region. It extends the previous range of camels in North America northward by about 1,200 km, and suggests that the lineage that gave rise to modern camels may have been originally adapted to living in an Arctic forest environment.”

Dr. Buckley added,  “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. Roy Wogelius from The University of Manchester’s School of Earth, Atmospheric & Environmental Sciences analysed the mineral content from the fossil bones. His findings suggest that the processes of mineralization worked along with cold temperatures to help preserve the all-important protein-package in the bones. “This specimen is spectacular, and provides important clues about how such exceptional preservation may occur” said Dr. Wogelius.

Other fossil finds at the same site as the giant camel suggest the High Arctic camel was living in a  forest environment dominated by pines, spruce and larches, this during a warm phase in the planet planets long history of life. It was this warm-phase to the climate and favourable environment that encourage the camels to migrate so far north from their current range.
The identification of the High Arctic camel is described in the March 5 edition of the online journal Nature Communications.

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