Ancient DNA from ice age camel bones, discovered in the Yukon, has re-arranged the camel family tree.

Western camels used to be prevalent in western North America until going extinct about 13,000 years ago. The camels looked similar to living dromedary camels, with a single hump and a long neck, but had longer legs.

Radiocarbon dating suggests they only migrated into the far north — Alaska and Yukon — during a brief period about 100,000 years ago, when temperatures were warmer than usual. Few camels made the trip North, and finding camel fossils in the Arctic is extremely rare.

Those that are found, though, are often preserved in permafrost, allowing their DNA to be studied by researchers.

Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula says for decades, scientists have thought that ice age camels found in the Klondike gold fields were closely related to alpacas and llamas. 

But new genetic results, allowed by examining fossils found in a gold mine near Dawson City, confirm they were actually much more closely aligned to the living camel species of Asia and Africa.

"With ancient DNA and genetic technologies now, we can actually reveal a whole lot more about their history, and sometimes animals that look like one another may not be even closely related at all," says Zazula. "And that's what we're discovering with this."

Zazula says the research re-writes the evolutionary history of the camel family.

Research re-writes the evolutionary history of the camel family

A bone from a western camel, found in a mine near Dawson City, and used in Grant Zazula's research. (Submitted by Government of Yukon)