Can we glimpse the future in the distant past? If we can, what might it teach us?
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.
AS CLIMATES CHANGE, FAUNA DOES TOO. THE ARCTIC WILDLIFE WE KNOW WILL BE ALTERED... THERE WILL BE EXITS AND ENTRANCES. AFTER ALL, NATURE TENDS TO EXPERIMENT