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Squirrel-like creature fossils tell tale of climate change in Arctic

Published by PLOS ONE, a new study focuses on a time of intense and prolonged global warming some 52 to 50 million years ago called the Early Eocene Climatic Optimum.

(CN) — New research out of the University of Kansas shows that millions of years ago, during a prolonged period of global warming, a genus of now extinct primate like mammals called Ignacius did what no other primate like mammals or primates could do — migrate from the interior of North America and successfully live on, and thrive in, the Arctic region of present day Canada. Researchers suggest that studying the fossils of Ignacius in the Arctic, and understanding how they survived and thrived there, can give us a window into the effects of contemporary anthropogenic climate change.

Published by PLOS ONE, the study focuses on a time of intense and prolonged global warming some 52 to 50 million years ago called the Early Eocene Climatic Optimum, on an island called Ellesmere Island in the modern day far northern portion of the Canadian Arctic.

While the island is now covered in ice and glaciers, back in the Early Eocene Climatic Optimum, the climate of the island was closer to a subtropical environment, “like a cypress swamp in Savannah Georgia,” with a diverse array of plant life, and six months of Arctic winter darkness and six months of summer light, said Chris Beard, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, and one of the study’s researchers.

Primates, Beard said, “would be one of the last animals you would predict would show up on an Arctic island,” but using fossils collected by paleontologist Mary R. Dawson in the 1970’s, whom Beard worked with at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg, Beard and his co-authors were able to deduce that in a time of abundant mammal and primate life south of the Arctic in North America, Ignacius were the first primate like creatures to migrate up to and colonize and adapt to life in the Arctic.

Whereas Ignacius south of the Arctic likely relied on fruits and other plants as food sources, when those weren’t available, the fossils Beard and his co-authors studied showed that in order to adapt to their new Arctic climate, Ignacius developed a more forward superficial masseter jaw muscle, giving it a higher bite force and flatter teeth. Both evolutionary developments allowed the Arctic Ignacius to eat more nuts and seeds, which were likely the only foods available during the long Arctic winters.

In the Arctic, two distinct species of Ignacius developed, the biggest one being quadruple the size of the biggest Ignacius fossils discovered south of the Arctic.

Beard described Ignacius as squirrel like creatures.

“That’s the cool thing. It’s not that these animals were able to colonize this island, but how they were able to colonize and survive. Especially having to survive the six months of winter darkness,” Beard said.

What does Beard and his co-authors' research mean for human life in the 21st century? Their research into what paleontology can tell us about the past Arctic climate during a global warming period can serve as a useful example of what might happen as our current anthropogenic climate change warms the Arctic and the world now.

“As the world warms up, especially the Arctic, one thing we can expect to see is that animals that don’t normally live in the Arctic will start showing up there, just like Ignacius did.”

Beard said that parts of the Arctic are already experiencing comparable events, like red foxes encroaching on Arctic foxes territories.

“Do we expect South American monkeys to show up [in the Arctic], I hope not, because that would mean we really mucked the environment up,” Beard said. But as the Arctic continues to warm, opportunistic and adaptable animals from warmer climates just might follow the footsteps of Ignacius and make their way up to the Arctic.

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