Wild Things

Can we glimpse the fu­ture in the dis­tant past? If we can, what might it teach us?

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Jay In­gram

Can we glimpse the fu­ture in the North’s dis­tant Pliocene past? If we can, what might it teach us?

CLI­MATE CHANGE IS THREAT­EN­ING to hit Arc­tic wildlife hard, but so far we can only guess what might hap­pen. There might be win­ners; there will cer­tainly be losers. As to what will the fu­ture Arc­tic look like, we have very few, if any, ref­er­ence points.

Other than to­day’s fa­mil­iar fauna — muskoxen, po­lar bears, Arc­tic foxes — the only Arc­tic fauna most of us are fa­mil­iar with are the an­i­mals that emerged from the last ice age. The mam­moths, bison — and the hu­mans who hunted them — pop­u­late those spec­tac­u­lar mu­seum dio­ra­mas (where an un­re­al­is­tic num­ber of species crowds into an un­re­al­is­ti­cally small area).

We are so fas­ci­nated with them that some even want to bring them back: es­tab­lish “Pleis­tocene Park” in Siberia; clone the mam­moth and even “re-wild” vast ar­eas of western North Amer­ica. Ironic, given that we likely had a hand in their ex­ter­mi­na­tion in the first place. But these an­i­mals don’t serve as a model of what might come, emerg­ing as they did from an icy world. Still, there was a time and place in the Arc­tic that might of­fer a clue: the Pliocene, four mil­lion years ago.

The place where much of the Arc­tic Pliocene story is told is sur­pris­ingly small, a place called Beaver Pond near Strath­cona Fiord on Ellesmere Is­land, at lat­i­tude 78 de­grees.

The main part of the site was ac­tu­ally a beaver pond four mil­lion years ago. To­day it is pretty much bar­ren, with an an­nual av­er­age tem­per­a­ture close to 0 C.

Things were dif­fer­ent back then. While at that time Aus­tralo­p­ithecines (like the famed “Lucy”) were on the ground in Africa, there were no hu­man rel­a­tives at all in the Arc­tic. Tem­per­a­tures av­er­aged as much as 20 C higher than they are now (or at least as they had been un­til very re­cently). It was a wet­land, with trees species like larch, alder, pine and spruce ev­ery­where — fa­mil­iar species, though the forests were dif­fer­ent, but not ex­otic.

But the an­i­mals were an im­pres­sive as­sem­blage. As the name given to it sug­gests, there were beavers, but not like those of to­day. They were small, like the mod­ern muskrat, and less ef­fi­cient in wood­cut­ting, partly be­cause they had smaller in­cisors. Nor did they give rise to to­day’s beavers — they were an Arc­tic “ex­per­i­ment” that didn’t last.

Then there was the “deer­let.” It sounds like it would have been im­pos­si­bly cute, but we can only imag­ine. Based on the scant re­mains, all that can be said about this deer, weigh­ing about 10 kg, is that it had highly un­usual teeth, per­haps for chewing on hard woody branches.

Teeth of the prim­i­tive bears in the area are also re­veal­ing: they were rid­dled with cav­i­ties, sug­gest­ing to re­searchers that they con­sumed vast amounts of berries. There were crow­ber­ries, lin­gonber­ries and rasp­ber­ries in the area, and these bears might have de­pended more on fruit than meat to ac­crete fat for hi­ber­na­tion. In fact, the sci­en­tists in­volved in the dis­cov­ery al­lowed them­selves to spec­u­late that bees might have lived in the area.

There was a horse too, dif­fer­ent from all North Amer­i­can an­ces­tral horses, but much like some from Asia, sug­gest­ing this in­di­vid­ual might have been a rem­nant of the vast mi­gra­tions of species back-and-forth across the forested Ber­ing land bridge. There has also been found the re­mains of a wild dog and a type of rab­bit.

But the pièce de ré­sis­tance of the Beaver Pond fauna was a gi­ant camel, 30 per cent larger than the camels we are fa­mil­iar with to­day, and found more than 1,000 kilo­me­tres fur­ther north than the rest of North Amer­i­can camels. A camel in the for­est? Of course, it’s dif­fi­cult to tell at this re­move, but maybe it browsed like a moose. The dis­cov­ery also raised the pos­si­bil­ity that some of the fa­mil­iar fea­tures of camels, the fat-filled hump and large flat feet, might have been adap­ta­tions to liv­ing in the Arc­tic.

This re­mark­able Beaver Pond menagerie has been pieced to­gether — lit­er­ally — from scat­tered bones and teeth. Just as the 19th-cen­tury French nat­u­ral­ist Ge­orges Cu­vier ar­gued that if he were given a fos­sil bone he could, in his mind’s eye, en­vi­sion its role in the whole an­i­mal, shat­tered shin bones re­vealed a camel, rot­ten teeth a hun­gry bear, and a par­tial skull a horse at the end of a long multi­gen­er­a­tional jour­ney.

Does it say any­thing about a fu­ture, warmer Arc­tic? Only in the sense that as cli­mates change, fauna does too. There will be ex­its and en­trances, na­ture will ex­per­i­ment, and the Arc­tic fauna that we have be­come so ac­cus­tomed to will change. Only in hind­sight will our de­scen­dants be able to say, as per­haps we can of Beaver Pond, that it all makes sense.


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