Name Meaning: Camel Face
Geologic Era: Late Pliocene to end of Pleistocene
Location Found: Texas
Size: 2.1 meters tall at shoulder
Estimated Range: Western North America
Extinction Date: Late Pleistocene (about 10,000 years ago)
It might be hard to believe, but camels did once roam North America alongside horses and sabertooth cats. The genetic line that would become camels and llamas actually originated on the North American continent, and later spread over the Bering land bridge into Asia and Africa, where they survive to the present day. Camelops’ skeleton looks very similar to the modern Dromedary (single humped) camel of Asia. Camelops most likely looked like a scaled up version of a modern camel. Our tooth still has a little bit of the rock matrix embedded in it, but overall, this is a very clean specimen.
Camelops was the last camel to go extinct in North America, as far as can be determined from fossil evidence. They appear to have gone extinct at roughly the same time as North American horses. Both groups of animals, even if they are far removed from the originals, would later be reintroduced to America by Europeans. Camelops was probably an opportunistic herbivore, meaning it at whatever it could find. Grasses are not often found embedded in Camelops teeth, meaning it probably preferred softer plant material such as leaves and ferns. This gave it a wider variety of food options to choose from, allowing for less direct competition with other large herbivores.
Camelops was also likely hunted by the first North American humans. Several Camelops finds seem to show evidence of processing by stone tools, which are what the Clovis people of North America were known for using. Whether these were kills or just the result of scavenging, Camelops could easily have been considered a food source for early North Americans. Humans are unlikely to have been the direct cause of Camelops’ extinction, but they may very easily have contributed.
One debate that continues regarding Camelops is whether or not it possessed a hump as modern camels do. Humps are composed primarily of fatty and connective tissue, neither of which is typically preserved in the fossil record. The restoration above shows Camelops without a hump, while some other illustrations depict a hump similar to that of the modern Dromedary camel. Short of finding a mummified specimen, we will probably never know for sure about this aspect of Camelops’ anatomy.
One thing that can be said is that the neural spines on the vertebrae of Camelops are comparable in size to modern humped camels. What this means is that physically, Camelops could have supported a hump-like structure. An argument against a hump would be that the structure evolved in the deserts of Asia and Africa, where water was frequently in short supply. A hump, then, would have been an evolutionary advantage. In North America, conditions are typically not so dry, so having a hump (with the accompanying extra mass) would have been more of a detriment than a help.
Climate change spelled the end for most of the megafauna, Camelops included. A decrease in nutrient content of plants meant that larger animals were now at a disadvantage. The most recent Camelops fossils are from around 10,000 years ago. Its relatives survived in South America in the form of alpacas, llamas, and vicunas.
Skeleton: “Camelops hesternus” by WolfmanSF – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Camelops_hesternus.jpg#/media/File:Camelops_hesternus.jpg
Life Restoration: By Sergiodlarosa, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6835922