In my line of work the chances to flex my paleontological muscles are few and far between, which is why the news from scientists that they’ve discovered the remains of a giant camel that lived in Canada’s high Arctic millions of years ago really whet my whistle.
Having studied archaeology at university, this sort of story is right up my street. Strangely enough, though, after three glorious years spent accidentally digging up Anglo-Saxon flagstones, stepping on medieval silver thimbles, discarding large quantities of Roman pottery (I maintain to this day that it looked a lot like rubbish) and being caught by the head of our department playing baseball with a mattock during a crucial moment of our excavation, my career as a budding Indiana Jones never really took off. Still, I suppose that archaeology’s loss is the Arctic’s gain.
Anyway, it turns out that a now extinct species of huge camel called Paracamelus lived in the polar region of northern Canada 3.5 million years ago. Excavations in Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, found fossilised bones suggesting these über-camels were perfectly at home in conditions similar to those we’d recognise in boreal forests today: perhaps not extremely cold year-round, but with long, dark winters, lots of snow, peat bogs and expanses of wetland. Indeed Paracamelus is thought to have been the ancient equivalent of the boreal’s top herbivore, the moose.
So what, if anything, can we draw from large camel fossils?
Admittedly not a question likely to have taxed our greatest thinkers, but it’s still worth a go. As one Canadian scientist put it, “that’s what the far north does: it serves up these surprises every now and then” — and this discovery has certainly unearthed a few things we should consider.
The research provided valuable insights for the study of the impact of global climate change in the far north. At the time these camels flourished, the world’s temperature was about two or three degrees warmer than today. This is the level of warming scientists have repeatedly told us we must stay under to avoid the potentially catastrophic changes to our climate system and gives a snapshot of what a changed Arctic might look like in the future, an “historical analogue for future warming.”
The story also proves that over time, the Arctic ecosystem has been home to an incredibly rich diversity of plants and animals and has undergone significant change. Both of these hold true today: the far north is a biodiversity treasure-trove but faces a fundamental environmental shift. But given that much of the change we’re witnessing now is being driven by human factors like climate change and oil exploration, we have an opportunity to intervene and act to try and stave off their worst impacts in a way that was presumably beyond poor old Paracamelus.
When we see the astonishing recklessness shown in the Arctic by companies like Shell, drilling for oil with practically no regard for even the most basic safety standards, the need for urgent action becomes even clearer.
Even though Shell has announced a pause in its Arctic drilling programme we have a chance to get President Obama to turn a pause into a permanent ban, protecting the fragile Arctic from the threat of oil spills and run-away melting.
Join us and take action to keep the Arctic permanently off limits to the oil industry because you know that if they had iPads, PCs or even a BBC Micro back in those days, giant Paracamelus would be doing exactly the same.
A keen ornithologist who has worked on many Greenpeace issues, Ben is head of the Arctic oil campaign. He lives in London, UK and watches a lot of Arsenal matches.