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Canadian pair portray a long-lost Arctic world

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Two Canadian scientists have completed a comprehensive portrait of the lush, rainforest-like ecosystem populated by prehistoric creatures akin to alligators, hippos and flying lemurs that prevailed some 40 million years ago on what is now Ellesmere Island, Canada's northernmost land mass.

The study of hundreds of fossilized species, published in the latest issue of the journal Geological Society of America Bulletin, paints a picture of the ancient Arctic that contrasts sharply with the barren, bone-chilling place it is today.

Ellesmere Island's rugged, windswept terrain, a bleak domain now ruled by the shaggy muskox, was once teeming with a diverse array of plant and animal life in a long-lost world that's only recognizable today from Earth's southern latitudes.

Glimpses of Ellesmere's extinct rainforest have been provided in previous scientific studies, including several by Saskatchewan-born paleontologist Jaelyn Eberle. Now a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and curator of fossil vertebrates at the university's natural history museum, Eberle co-authored the new GSA Bulletin paper with Manitoba scientist David Greenwood, a paleobiologist at Brandon University.

Their exhaustive inventory of the known flora and fauna of the Eocene Arctic, a period that lasted from about 50 million to 38 million years ago, reveals what Eberle calls "a pretty amazing place" at the northern extreme of the future Canada.

"Who would have guessed we had all of those turtle species and primates living in the ancient Arctic?" Eberle told Postmedia News. "Despite all of the fossil discoveries, though, there are still a lot of questions unanswered. The Canadian Arctic was, and still is, the last frontier for paleontology."

Among the unexpected inhabitants of ancient Ellesmere was the coryphodon, a semi-aquatic mammal resembling the modern hippopotamus and known from fossilized bone and teeth found on the High Arctic island.

Although Ellesmere was situated nearly as close to the North Pole 50 million years ago as it is today, the coryphodon, notable for its massive size and fang-like tusks, lived in temperate, swampy forests that thrived in the greenhouse-heated planet of the Eocene age.

Eberle said she studies the Eocene environment partly to compare its evolutionary features with today's Arctic.

Although the climate-warming the region is undergoing today is happening on a much lesser scale, the Arctic biosphere has nevertheless begun to exhibit significant shifts in the ranges of certain plants and animals.

"The Eocene Arctic biota is arguably our best 'deep-time laboratory' for understanding and predicting the impacts of current and future global warming on today's polar biota," Eberle said.

-- Postmedia News


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2012 A18


Updated on Saturday, February 11, 2012 at 2:14 PM CST: Updates image credit

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