Primate relatives once lived in High Arctic, researchers say

Research based on fossils collected from Ellesmere Island in 1970s

University of Kansas PhD student Kristen Miller, left, and paleontologist Chris Beard studied fossils including fragments of jaws and teeth collected near Ellesmere Island in the 1970s. The two relatives of primates they identified through this seem to have adapted to the Arctic environment physically and through their diets. (Photos courtesy of Kristen Miller and Chris Beard)

By Meral Jamal

Updated on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, at 11 a.m.

Fossils collected from Ellesmere Island 50 years ago are now providing the first evidence that relatives of primates once lived in the High Arctic.

In the 1970s, Mary Dawson, a former curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pa., travelled to Ellesmere Island in search of fossils.

The fossils she found sat in the Carnegie museum’s collection gathering dust until 2019, when a University of Kansas paleontologist suggested one of his students, Kristen Miller, study the fossils as part of her research for her master’s degree.

It took her two years to complete her degree and another year of research and writing but Miller, now a PhD candidate at University of Kansas, is seeing her research published in the PLOS ONE open-access journal Wednesday.

The fossils include fragments of animal jaws and teeth Miller and University of Kansas paleontologist Chris Beard say come from a group of mammals that includes monkeys, apes and lemurs.

Specimen images of Ignacius dawsonae, one of two primate relatives found to have lived in the Arctic by Kristen Miller and Chris Beard in their research. (Image courtesy of Kristen Miller, Biodiversity Institute, University of Kansas)

The researchers were able to identify two new species as close relatives of early primates: Ignacius dawsonae and Ignacius mckennai.

“Our questions [were]: how did these guys get to the Arctic? Why did they show up in the Arctic? How did they survive in the Arctic?” Miller said in an interview with Nunatsiaq News.

She said the key to answering these questions comes from considering what the climate in the High Arctic would have looked like during the Eocene Epoch, between 33 and 56 million years ago.

“It would have been much warmer, with no polar ice caps even during the winter,” Miller said.

She said the discovery is important because primates have so far been largely found in parts of the world with warmer climates — tropical areas from Asia, Africa and South America.

Some species have been found to have lived closer to middle or temperate latitudes in places such as Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico in the United States.

Miller said a lack of winter food supply and limited daylight were previously considered important reasons that primates were not found in the polar regions.

As well, it was thought there would be no reason for primates to migrate north.

“They were doing so well at mid-latitudes,” Miller said.

The fossils show evidence that Ignacius dawsonae and Ignacius mckennai adapted to their unusual environment both physically and through their diets.

Both creatures were relatively large, for example, which is a common trait in northern mammals.

Their diet also consisted of hard food items, which may have been their way of adapting during Arctic winters when softer meals would have been more difficult to access, said Miller.

She calls her research a “snapshot” of the Arctic from 52 million years ago that furthers our understanding of how diverse prehistoric wildlife was in the region.

The discovery could also help researchers predict how contemporary climate change might affect life on the planet.

A reconstruction of the Ignacius dawsonae surviving six months of winter darkness in the extinct warm temperate ecosystem of Ellesmere Island during the Eocene Epoch 52 million years ago. (Image courtesy of Kristen Miller, Biodiversity Institute, University of Kansas, CC-BY 4.0)

“What we think will happen is that we will see an influx of northward migration as the temperature warms, but not [all wildlife] will be able to adapt to [Northern] conditions,” Miller said.

“Even though it’s warming, we’ve still got the polar light regime [six months of darkness and six months of light] wildlife has to overcome, as well as food shortages.”

Building a better understanding of who inhabited the High Arctic before the tropical Eocene Epoch and after could also shed light on how life on Earth could adapt to climate change.

“It would be very interesting to see who was there beforehand and who made it through and was able to survive during the changing conditions,” Miller said.

Correction: This article has been updated from an earlier version to report that researchers identified relatives of primates they believe lived in the High Arctic 52 million years ago.

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(17) Comments:

  1. Posted by lol on

    yes they are still here in the legislature

  2. Posted by Harry Sr. on

    I was going to say that we are still here but the above comment is more accurate??

  3. Posted by Just splittin’ hairs on

    As usual Nunatsiaq News ‘stretches it’ enough for a few extra clicks. The title of the story being ‘Evidence of primates in the high Arctic’ is not true and I can’t imagine the editor or whomever wrote the headline does not know that. These were close relatives of primates, that looked more like a modern Fisher or other mustelid than an ape. But yea…

    • Posted by Within the Norm on

      This is essentially the same headline that more mainstream and widely read media used when they described the situation.

      It may not be 100% accurate, but it is well within the norm for both non-expert readers and editors.

      • Posted by Let’s do better on

        Setting the bar at “everyone else is doing it” is the definition of mediocrity. At what point does what is factually true become important to us?

        Incidentally, they changed the headline. Hat tip for you, NN.

  4. Posted by Jennifer on

    Is this based on the Theory of Evolution or did we know the carbon content in the atmosphere 54 million years ago? These numbers always make me laugh. May as well say zillion

    • Posted by In NUnavut… on

      Ignorance reigns

  5. Posted by Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit on

    How come no elders are asked about these? Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit could have told you about these long time ago.

    • Posted by Peter Parker on


      • Posted by Magical thinking? on

        Let me guess, “other ways of knowing” right?

    • Posted by Oh? on

      Oral history dating back 50 million years? Tell me more

  6. Posted by on looker on

    in order to get your answer you have to read the bible it has all the answers, before the big flood the world was very different, it is not an evolution theory, evolution has no base in humanity, so you have to go back all the way to the flood, including when Lucifer was thrown out of Heaven, it will answer all your questions.

    • Posted by jawbones on

      This happened 50 mil. yrs. ago?

      • Posted by Truestory on

        Dinosaurs roamed the earth 50 million years ago. That’s why we have fossil fuels. Then, God intervened millions of years later, as He is Forever. Then, when the earth was made to be hospitable, then man was created. If you don’t like this post….ignore.

        • Posted by We evolved from single cells on

          50 million years ago Dinosaurs had been extinct for close to 15 million years.

          Are you saying evolution proceeded from single cellular life, which started close to 3.8 billion years ago, then god intervened about 2 millions(ish) years ago and decided to create humans?

          The more you understand evolutionary history, the more you will understand that there is no need to conjure up a magical being to ‘create’ us, we are the product of a long process that can be explained perfectly without the use of the ‘god’ magic.

          • Posted by Observer on

            And fossil fuels have nothing to do with dinosaurs. The majority of the world’s coal formed a hundred million years before dinosaurs existed, and petroleum formed from algae and plants.

        • Posted by Hilarious on

          Dear ‘Truestory’ there’s not one thing true about your story… imagine that

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