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TED Talks Live

Latif Nasser: You have no idea where camels really come from

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Camels are so well adapted to the desert that it's hard to imagine them living anywhere else. But what if we have them pegged all wrong? What if those big humps, feet and eyes were evolved for a different climate and a different time? In this talk, join Radiolab's Latif Nasser as he tells the surprising story of how a very tiny, very strange fossil upended the way he sees camels, and the world. This talk comes from the PBS special "TED Talks: Science & Wonder."

- Radio researcher
Latif Nasser is the director of research at Radiolab, where he has reported on such disparate topics as culture-bound illnesses, snowflake photography, sinking islands and 16th-century automata. Full bio

So, this is a story
00:12
about how we know what we know.
00:14
It's a story about this woman,
00:17
Natalia Rybczynski.
00:20
She's a paleobiologist,
00:22
which means she specializes
in digging up really old dead stuff.
00:24
(Audio) Natalia Rybczynski: Yeah,
I had someone call me "Dr. Dead Things."
00:28
Latif Nasser: And I think
she's particularly interesting
00:32
because of where she digs that stuff up,
00:35
way above the Arctic Circle
in the remote Canadian tundra.
00:36
Now, one summer day in 2006,
00:41
she was at a dig site called
the Fyles Leaf Bed,
00:44
which is less than 10 degrees latitude
away from the magnetic north pole.
00:48
(Audio) NR: Really, it's not
going to sound very exciting,
00:52
because it was a day of walking
with your backpack and your GPS
00:55
and notebook and just picking up
anything that might be a fossil.
00:59
LN: And at some point,
she noticed something.
01:03
(Audio) NR: Rusty, kind of rust-colored,
01:06
about the size of the palm of my hand.
01:08
It was just lying on the surface.
01:10
LN: And at first she thought
it was just a splinter of wood,
01:12
because that's the sort of thing
people had found
01:16
at the Fyles Leaf Bed before --
prehistoric plant parts.
01:18
But that night, back at camp ...
01:22
(Audio) NR: ... I get out the hand lens,
01:24
I'm looking a little bit
more closely and realizing
01:26
it doesn't quite look
like this has tree rings.
01:29
Maybe it's a preservation thing,
01:31
but it looks really like ...
01:33
bone.
01:35
LN: Huh. So over the next four years,
01:36
she went to that spot over and over,
01:39
and eventually collected 30 fragments
of that exact same bone,
01:42
most of them really tiny.
01:48
(Audio) NR: It's not a whole lot.
It fits in a small Ziploc bag.
01:50
LN: And she tried to piece them
together like a jigsaw puzzle.
01:54
But it was challenging.
01:58
(Audio) NR: It's broken up
into so many little tiny pieces,
02:00
I'm trying to use sand and putty,
and it's not looking good.
02:03
So finally, we used a 3D surface scanner.
02:07
LN: Ooh!
NR: Yeah, right?
02:12
(Laughter)
02:14
LN: It turns out it was way easier
to do it virtually.
02:15
(Audio) NR: It's kind of magical
when it all fits together.
02:18
LN: How certain were you
that you had it right,
02:21
that you had put it together
in the right way?
02:23
Was there a potential that you'd
put it together a different way
02:25
and have, like, a parakeet or something?
02:28
(Laughter)
02:30
(Audio) NR: (Laughs) Um, no.
No, we got this.
02:32
LN: What she had, she discovered,
was a tibia, a leg bone,
02:36
and specifically, one that belonged
to a cloven-hoofed mammal,
02:40
so something like a cow or a sheep.
02:44
But it couldn't have been either of those.
02:47
It was just too big.
02:49
(Audio) NR: The size of this thing,
it was huge. It's a really big animal.
02:51
LN: So what animal could it be?
02:55
Having hit a wall, she showed
one of the fragments
02:59
to some colleagues of hers in Colorado,
03:01
and they had an idea.
03:04
(Audio) NR: We took a saw,
and we nicked just the edge of it,
03:06
and there was this really interesting
smell that comes from it.
03:11
LN: It smelled kind of like singed flesh.
03:18
It was a smell that Natalia recognized
03:21
from cutting up skulls
in her gross anatomy lab:
03:23
collagen.
03:27
Collagen is what gives
structure to our bones.
03:29
And usually, after so many years,
03:31
it breaks down.
03:33
But in this case, the Arctic had acted
like a natural freezer and preserved it.
03:35
Then a year or two later,
Natalia was at a conference in Bristol,
03:40
and she saw that a colleague
of hers named Mike Buckley
03:43
was demoing this new process
that he called "collagen fingerprinting."
03:47
It turns out that different species
have slightly different structures
03:53
of collagen,
03:56
so if you get a collagen profile
of an unknown bone,
03:58
you can compare it
to those of known species,
04:00
and, who knows, maybe you get a match.
04:03
So she shipped him one of the fragments,
04:06
FedEx.
04:09
(Audio) NR: Yeah, you want to track it.
It's kind of important.
04:11
(Laughter)
04:15
LN: And he processed it,
04:16
and compared it to 37 known
and modern-day mammal species.
04:17
And he found a match.
04:22
It turns out that
the 3.5 million-year-old bone
04:24
that Natalia had dug
out of the High Arctic
04:29
belonged to ...
04:33
a camel.
04:36
(Laughter)
04:37
(Audio) NR: And I'm thinking, what?
That's amazing -- if it's true.
04:39
LN: So they tested
a bunch of the fragments,
04:43
and they got the same result for each one.
04:45
However, based on the size
of the bone that they found,
04:48
it meant that this camel was 30 percent
larger than modern-day camels.
04:53
So this camel would have been
about nine feet tall,
05:00
weighed around a ton.
05:03
(Audience reacts)
05:04
Yeah.
05:05
Natalia had found a Giant Arctic camel.
05:06
(Laughter)
05:10
Now, when you hear the word "camel,"
05:14
what may come to mind is one of these,
05:16
the Bactrian camel
of East and Central Asia.
05:21
But chances are the postcard image
you have in your brain
05:24
is one of these, the dromedary,
05:28
quintessential desert creature --
05:31
hangs out in sandy, hot places
like the Middle East and the Sahara,
05:34
has a big old hump on its back
05:38
for storing water
for those long desert treks,
05:40
has big, broad feet to help it
tromp over sand dunes.
05:42
So how on earth would one of these guys
end up in the High Arctic?
05:46
Well, scientists have known
for a long time, turns out,
05:53
even before Natalia's discovery,
05:56
that camels are actually
originally American.
05:59
(Music: The Star-Spangled Banner)
06:04
(Laughter)
06:10
They started here.
06:11
For nearly 40 of the 45 million years
that camels have been around,
06:13
you could only find them in North America,
06:18
around 20 different species, maybe more.
06:21
(Audio) LN: If I put them all in a lineup,
would they look different?
06:24
NR: Yeah, you're going to have
different body sizes.
06:28
You'll have some with really long necks,
06:30
so they're actually
functionally like giraffes.
06:32
LN: Some had snouts, like crocodiles.
06:35
(Audio) NR: The really primitive,
early ones would have been really small,
06:38
almost like rabbits.
06:42
LN: What? Rabbit-sized camels?
06:44
(Audio) NR: The earliest ones.
06:47
So those ones you probably
would not recognize.
06:48
LN: Oh my God, I want a pet rabbit-camel.
06:51
(Audio) NR: I know,
wouldn't that be great?
06:53
(Laughter)
06:55
LN: And then about three
to seven million years ago,
06:56
one branch of camels
went down to South America,
06:59
where they became llamas and alpacas,
07:02
and another branch crossed over
the Bering Land Bridge
07:05
into Asia and Africa.
07:08
And then around the end
of the last ice age,
07:09
North American camels went extinct.
07:11
So, scientists knew all of that already,
07:15
but it still doesn't fully explain
how Natalia found one so far north.
07:18
Like, this is, temperature-wise,
the polar opposite of the Sahara.
07:24
Now to be fair,
07:29
three and a half million years ago,
07:31
it was on average 22 degrees Celsius
warmer than it is now.
07:33
So it would have been boreal forest,
07:37
so more like the Yukon or Siberia today.
07:40
But still, like, they would have
six-month-long winters
07:44
where the ponds would freeze over.
07:48
You'd have blizzards.
07:50
You'd have 24 hours a day
of straight darkness.
07:52
Like, how ... How?
07:55
How is it that one of these
Saharan superstars
07:58
could ever have survived
those arctic conditions?
08:03
(Laughter)
08:06
Natalia and her colleagues
think they have an answer.
08:09
And it's kind of brilliant.
08:13
What if the very features that we imagine
make the camel so well-suited
08:16
to places like the Sahara,
08:23
actually evolved to help it
get through the winter?
08:25
What if those broad feet were meant
to tromp not over sand,
08:29
but over snow, like a pair of snowshoes?
08:34
What if that hump --
which, huge news to me,
08:37
does not contain water, it contains fat --
08:40
(Laughter)
08:43
was there to help the camel
get through that six-month-long winter,
08:44
when food was scarce?
08:48
And then, only later, long after
it crossed over the land bridge
08:49
did it retrofit those winter features
for a hot desert environment?
08:53
Like, for instance, the hump
may be helpful to camels in hotter climes
08:58
because having all your fat in one place,
09:02
like a, you know, fat backpack,
09:04
means that you don't have
to have that insulation
09:07
all over the rest of your body.
09:10
So it helps heat dissipate easier.
09:11
It's this crazy idea,
09:14
that what seems like proof of the camel's
quintessential desert nature
09:17
could actually be proof
of its High Arctic past.
09:22
Now, I'm not the first person
to tell this story.
09:27
Others have told it as a way
to marvel at evolutionary biology
09:31
or as a keyhole into the future
of climate change.
09:36
But I love it for a totally
different reason.
09:40
For me, it's a story about us,
09:43
about how we see the world
09:46
and about how that changes.
09:48
So I was trained as a historian.
09:51
And I've learned that, actually,
a lot of scientists are historians, too.
09:55
They make sense of the past.
09:59
They tell the history of our universe,
of our planet, of life on this planet.
10:00
And as a historian,
10:06
you start with an idea in your mind
of how the story goes.
10:08
(Audio) NR: We make up stories
and we stick with it,
10:13
like the camel in the desert, right?
10:15
That's a great story!
It's totally adapted for that.
10:17
Clearly, it always lived there.
10:19
LN: But at any moment, you could
uncover some tiny bit of evidence.
10:22
You could learn some tiny thing
10:26
that forces you to reframe
everything you thought you knew.
10:28
Like, in this case, this one scientist
finds this one shard
10:32
of what she thought was wood,
10:36
and because of that, science has a totally
new and totally counterintuitive theory
10:38
about why this absurd
Dr. Seuss-looking creature
10:43
looks the way it does.
10:46
And for me, it completely upended
the way I think of the camel.
10:48
It went from being
this ridiculously niche creature
10:53
suited only to this
one specific environment,
10:58
to being this world traveler
that just happens to be in the Sahara,
11:00
and could end up virtually anywhere.
11:06
(Applause)
11:09
This is Azuri.
11:26
Azuri, hi, how are you doing?
11:28
OK, here, I've got
one of these for you here.
11:31
(Laughter)
11:34
So Azuri is on a break
from her regular gig
11:36
at the Radio City Music Hall.
11:40
(Laughter)
11:42
That's not even a joke.
11:44
Anyway --
11:46
But really, Azuri is here
as a living reminder
11:48
that the story of our world
is a dynamic one.
11:52
It requires our willingness
to readjust, to reimagine.
11:57
(Laughter)
12:01
Right, Azuri?
12:06
And, really, that we're all
just one shard of bone away
12:07
from seeing the world anew.
12:14
Thank you very much.
12:16
(Applause)
12:18

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About the speaker:

Latif Nasser - Radio researcher
Latif Nasser is the director of research at Radiolab, where he has reported on such disparate topics as culture-bound illnesses, snowflake photography, sinking islands and 16th-century automata.

Why you should listen

The history of science is "brimming with tales stranger than fiction," says Latif Nasser, who wrote his PhD dissertation on the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962. A writer and researcher, Nasser is now the research director at Radiolab, a job that allows him to dive into archives, talk to interesting people and tell stories as a way to think about science and society.

More profile about the speaker
Latif Nasser | Speaker | TED.com