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Hybrid Camel Skeleton Discovered in Austria

Apr 07, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

A complete camel skeleton has recently been discovered by archaeologists near the river Danube in Austria, and it turns out it's a unique hybrid that is rare for Central Europe, according to a new study.

The camel was male and around seven years old when it died, which was during the time of the Second Ottoman War in the 17th century, most likely in the city of Tulln. But the most interesting find, according to archaeologists, is the fact that the animal was a male hybrid of a dromedary in the maternal line and a Bactrian camel in the paternal line.

The findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

In 2006, construction began on a new shopping center in Tulln, Lower Austria, that would lead archaeologists in unearthing something they did not expect - an ancient treasure trove. A team of archaeozoologists and geneticists from the Vetmeduni Vienna stumbled upon various archaeologically valuable objects that were salvaged during rescue excavations, among them the complete skeleton of a large mammal.

"The partly excavated skeleton was at first suspected to be a large horse or cattle," archaeozoologist Alfred Galik, from the Institute for Anatomy, Histology and Embryology at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, said in a statement. "But one look at the cervical vertebrae, the lower jaw and the metacarpal bones immediately revealed that this was a camel."

Finding camel bones in Europe is nothing new - they have been unearthed in the region since as far back as the Roman period. Isolated bones or partly preserved skeletons are known from Mauerbach near Vienna, as well as from Serbia and Belgium. But a complete camel skeleton is unique for Central Europe.

In addition to horses, the Ottoman army also used camels for transportation and as riding animals - not to mention in some cases the exotic animals were eaten in times of scarcity. However, that was not the fate of this particular camel, given that its complete skeleton was found.

"This means that the animal was not killed and then butchered. It may have been acquired as part of an exchange," Galik explained. "The animal was certainly exotic for the people of Tulln. They probably didn't know what to feed it or whether one could eat it. Perhaps it died a natural death and was then buried without being used."

Furthermore, the researchers conducted an extensive DNA analysis, which revealed that the animal was a hybrid: its mother was a dromedary and its father a Bactrian camel. This goes along with some of the unique morphological features they observed from the specimen.

Besides animal bones, the excavations also unearthed ceramic plates and other items, including a so-called "Rechenpfenning" coin and a medicinal bottle containing Theriacum, an ancient medieval remedy.

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