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Camelids are believed to have originated in North America. From there they spread down into South America (after a land bridge connected the continents) where they are represented by llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos. Ancient camels also left North America via land bridge to Asia. The dromedary and Bactrian camels are descended from the creatures which wandered into Beringia and then into the great arid plains of Asia. Yet in their native North America, the camelids have all died out. This strikes me as a great pity because North America’s camels were amazing and diverse!
At least seven genera of camels are known to have flourished across the continent in the era between Eocene and the early Holocene (a 40 million year history). The abstract of Jessica Harrison’s excitingly titled “Giant Camels from the Cenozoic of North America” gives a rough overview of these huge extinct beasts:
Aepycamelus was the first camel to achieve giant size and is the only one not in the subfamily Camelinae. Blancocamelus and Camelops are in the tribe Lamini, and the remaining giant camels Megatylopus, Titanotylopus, Megacamelus, Gigantocamelus, and Camelus are in the tribe Camelini.
That’s a lot of camels–and some of them were pretty crazy (and it only counts the large ones—many smaller genera proliferated across different habitats). Gigantocamelus (as one might imagine) was a behemoth weighing as much as 2,485.6 kg (5,500 lb). Aepycamelus had an elongated neck like that of a giraffe and the top of its head was 3 metres (9.8 ft) from the ground. Earlier, in the Eocene, tiny delicate camels the size of rabbits lived alongside the graceful little dawn horses. This bestiary of exotic camels received a new addition this week when paleontologists working on Ellesmere Island (in Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut) discovered the remains of a giant arctic camel that lived 3.5 million years ago. Based on the mummified femurs which were unearthed at the dig, the polar camel was about 30 percent larger than today’s camels. The arctic region of 3.5 million years ago was a different habitat from the icy lichen-strewn wasteland of today. The newly discovered camels probably lived in boreal forests (rather in the manner of contemporary moose) where they were surrounded by ancient horses, deer, bears and even arctic frogs! Testing of collagen in the remains has revealed that the camels are closely related to the Arabian camels of today, so these arctic camels (or camels like them) were among the invaders who left the Americas for Asia.
The bones are a reminder of how different the fauna used to be in North America. When you look out over the empty, empty great plains, remember they are not as they should be. All sorts of camels should be running around. Unfortunately the ones that did not leave for Asia and South America were all killed by the grinding ice ages, the fell hand of man, or by unknown factors.
Like the Arctic landscape, Inuit mythology is austere, cruel, strange, and beautiful. Just as the dialects of the Inuit language differ based on geography, so too many of the sacred stories of the Inuit share the same elements yet also vary from one region to the next. One such story is the myth of Sedna—the goddess of marine mammals, the frozen depths of the sea, and of the spirit’s realm below. There are many versions of the tale. Here is my favorite.
Sedna was a beautiful giantess. Her great size was a hardship for her father, who had to spend most of his time hunting in order to feed himself and his daughter. However, because she was so lovely, she had many suitors. Sedna was proud of her looks and her strength, so she rejected every suitor as unworthy of her.
One day a well-dressed stranger came to visit Sedna’s father. Though the visitor’s clothes were opulent and his language was cultured, he kept his hood pulled down so that his face remained in darkness. The stranger talked of his great wealth and the life of ease which Sedna would enjoy if she were his wife. Then he appealed to the father’s greed with gifts of fish, animal skins, and precious materials. Since hunting was bad and his stores were running out, Sedna’s father felt he had little choice but to comply–so he drugged his daughter and presented her to the stranger. As soon as she was loaded on his kayak the elegant stranger paddled off into the frozen ocean with unnatural speed.
When Sedna came around to consciousness, she was in a great nest on top of a cliff. The only furnishings were dark feathers, fish bones, and a few clumps of skin and fur. The elegant stranger cackled and threw back his hood. He was none other than Raven, the capricious trickster deity who had arrived second in the world, soon after the creator had shaped it. Raven kept his beautiful stolen wife trapped in his nest and he fed her on fish (although she kept her ears open and listened to his magic words).
In the mean time, Sedna’s father became unhappy with the bargain he had struck. He set out on his kayak to find his daughter and rescue her from the mysterious suitor. Night and day he paddled, till finally he heard her cries for help intermingled with the howling winds.
Sedna’s father arrived while raven was off pursuing his other ventures, and Sedna quickly climbed down to his kayak so they could start back to the mainland. They paddled hard, but before they could reach land, Sedna spotted a distant pair of black wings in the sky. Raven had returned home to his nest and found his bride was missing. In anger at being cheated, Raven called out magic words of anger to the sea spirits. The winds rose to a gale and huge waves pounded the kayak.
Lost in terror, Sedna’s father cast his daughter into the ocean to placate Raven and the water spirits. Despite the storm and her father’s imprecations, she clung to the gunwale of the kayak. Then, in fury, her father pulled out his flint knife and hacked at her fingers. Sedna’s first finger came off and, amidst blood and saltwater, was transformed into narwhals and belugas. Her father hacked off her second finger which transformed into fur seals and ringed seals. Finally the knife cut through her third finger which transformed into the great walruses. Unable to grip the kayak with her maimed hand, Sedna fell into the sea. Rather than submit to her raven husband or her greedy father, she let herself sink beneath the waves down to the icy bottom of the ocean.
Beneath the waves she found Adlivun, the Inuit underworld where spirits are purified before they wander on to other worlds. With the help of her powerful new children she made herself ruler there. Her legs gradually changed into a mighty tail. Her humankind ebbed from her and was replaced by divine power and wrath. Sedna is still worshiped as the underworld god by Inuit peoples. She hates hunters both because of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of her father and because they continue to kill so many of her children—the seals, whales, and walruses. From time to time she raises a terrible storm to drown seafarers, or she gathers together all of the marine mammals within her long beautiful hair where the hunters can never find them. It is at such times that the shaman must travel down into Adlivun to beg with her and to praise her beauty and strength. Only then will she reluctantly let the storms abate and allow all of the marine mammals to go back to the coasts–where they are again in danger from Inuit spears.
Today we feature one of everyone’s favorite animals–the great toothwalkers of the northern oceans, the mighty walruses (Odobenus rosmarus). Adult Pacific male walruses can weigh more than 2,000 kg (4,400 pounds) and grow to lengths exceeding 13 feet. The huge pinnipeds live in vast colonies ringed around the Arctic Ocean. Females separate themselves from the fractious males in order to protect their calves from the squabbling and dueling of the bulls. The tusks (which can grow to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in length) are also used by both genders to leverage their great weight out of the water—hence the name “toothwalker.” The word walrus comes from the Old Norse word “hrossvalr” which means horsewhale.
The distinctive face of the walrus is a mass of large coarse bristles properly known as vibrissae. Like the barbells of a catfish, these vibrissae are extremely sensitive tactile organs which help the walrus find shellfish on the dark and turbid ocean bottom. Walruses are capable of diving deep to find the invertebrates they like to eat. Scientists have recorded dives of 113 meters (371 feet) which lasted for about 25 minutes. Once the walruses have located a food source to their liking, they dislodge their prey with jets of water and then suction up the creatures. Apparently they are most partial to bivalve mollusks, snails, sea cucumbers, and crabs, but in extreme circumstances they can hunt large fish or even smaller seals.
Walruses can sleep in the water, their heads supported by an inflatable pouch which allows them to bob comfortably in the choppy near-freezing water. Additionally they change color with the temperature—their surface skin can be pink, as blood rushes near to the surface when they are hot, or they can turn grey brown when cold.
All pinnipeds, including walruses, are in the order Carnivora where they seem to most closely share a common ancestor with bears back in the Oligocene. Walruses are the only species in the only genus of the family Odobenidae. Once the Odobenidae were a sprawling family with at least twenty species spread across three several subfamilies (the Imagotariinae, Dusignathinae and Odobeninae), but something went wrong and walruses are all that’s left of the saber-toothed seals.
Walruses’ only natural predators are polar bears and killer whales, but even the world’s largest land predator and the most formidable ocean predator find adult walruses intimidating. Except in extraordinary circumstances the huge predators only hunt calves or weakened walruses. Predictably, humans are the walruses’ main problem. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th century immense numbers of walruses were killed for blubber, skin, meat, and ivory. Today this commercial exploitation has ended and worldwide populations have rebounded somewhat–though certain geographic areas remain depopulated.
Perhaps because they move ponderously on land and because their whiskers suggest comic uncles, some people underestimate walruses. I have been fortunate enough to see a young adult walrus in captivity (he was orphaned as a pup and would have died if not taken in by an aquarium) and it is a mistake to underestimate these animals. The walrus (whose name was Ayveq) was as large as a midsized truck, yet he could move with shark-like speed but ballet-like grace in the water. Bull walruses come into maturity at the age of 7, but they don’t usually get to mate with cows until they are 15 or so and have bested many competitors in savage sword duels with their tusks. Ayveq had access to a harem of walrus cows from a much younger age, and his comic attempts to understand himself and his relation to the females was a source of much surprised astonishment among aquarium-goers. As a peripheral point, I neglected to mention that male walruses have a uniquely large baculum which can measure up to 63 cm (25 inches)—larger than that of any other land mammal. The apparatus supported by this bone is similarly oversized.
Ayveq could produce a remarkable series of shrieks, grunts, whistles, bellows—apparently communication is important in the teaming masses of walrus colonies. Whether drinking herring through a straw, mugging for a crowd, or using his back flippers to amuse himself, Ayveq was always remarkable. His death saddened me considerably and I could not write about walruses without mentioning his extravagant personality. Knowing Ayveq also left me convinced that walruses might be perverts but they are also highly intelligent and gregarious beings. This conviction is born out by the painstaking work of biologists and zoologists who are just beginning to recognize how complicated walrus society is. It is no wonder, that so many poets, artists, and musicians have referenced the remarkable tusked creatures.