Imagine the barren and frozen Canadian Arctic; now picture it with dense forests and a steamy, Savannah-like climate. That’s what the Arctic was like 52 million years ago, and it was home to two newly identified species of primate-like mammals. The discovery, reported in PLOS ONE, could shed light on how species might adapt to the current climate emergency caused by humans.
The fossils date back to the Eocene epoch, when Earth was home to ancient relatives of many modern mammals, including humans. One such species was the now-extinct genus Ignacius, the subject of the new study. Although scientists are still figuring out exactly where Ignacius fits in the evolutionary tree, it falls within the group that includes primates and primate-like animals, like flying lemurs.
The two species found in the Arctic, Ignacius mckennai and Ignacius dawsonae, were initially collected in the 1970s but only recently identified as undiscovered species. The fossils include teeth and jawbones, but no complete skeletons. Despite this, it’s evident that the two species evolved traits that were not seen in their lower-latitude relatives to cope with the warmer but more challenging Arctic environment. These adaptations include teeth with craggy surfaces, which could have helped them eat tough food like seeds and tree bark, which were likely the only options during extended winter darkness. Both species are also larger than other Ignacius species, a trend in animals at the poles which tend to be bigger to retain heat.
While discovering these two species on Ellesmere Island is exciting, scientists are also intrigued by what isn’t found there. Some animals, like early horses and primates, were abundant at mid-latitudes but never made it to the Arctic. This shows that not all animals could colonize the Eocene Arctic, even those that preferred warm temperatures.
Learning about how species responded to past warming events is crucial as global temperatures are rising faster than ever. Scientists need to look at these past intervals to predict how a biota will do in an ice-free Arctic, which could happen as early as 2035. Although the exact traits that make a species capable of colonizing a warming Arctic are unknown, being able to eat different types of food is one characteristic that could make it easier.
Red foxes are already shifting into the Arctic, but the question remains: what other species will be able to follow suit? Studying the past can give us insight into the future, but we must act now to slow down and eventually stop the ongoing climate crisis. Every small action, from reducing our carbon footprint to supporting environmentally conscious policies, can make a difference in the future of our planet. Let’s make the Arctic, and the entire world, a hospitable place for generations to come.
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