SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Long ago, camels once roamed North America. In fact, the entire Camelops species actually originated here.
While today’s camels are found throughout desert areas in North Africa and the Middle East, scientists believe lands west of the Mississippi River were home to the world’s very first camels.
That’s right. It turns out that if the Magi of the Bible did ride camels to visit the newborn Jesus in a manger, they weren’t the only ones who traveled from afar to reach Bethlehem in Judea.
What is known is that fossil records show the earliest records of the camel’s existence began during the Eocene period, 44 million years ago.
In 2015, a team from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, led by Paleontologist Dr. James E. Martin, shipped a massive camel they discovered in South-Central Oregon to be displayed at the Lafayette Science Museum. The Megatylopus was said to be between 12 and 14 feet tall and functioned much like a giraffe when it lived approximately 7 million years ago.
So how did camels get to Eurasia from North America?
Around six to seven million years ago, early camels known as Paracamelus started leaving North America by crossing into Eurasia across the Bering Strait. Once the early camel ancestors arrived in Eurasia, they began branching off into the distinctive camel species we recognize today: the Bactrian camel and the one-humped dromedary camel.
The two-humped Bactrian camels are considered native to the Gobi Desert in China and the Bactrian steppes of Mongolia. Wild Bactrian camels are listed as critically endangered and the eighth most endangered large mammal in the world because of hunting and competition with livestock for food and other resources. They are also listed as a separate species, and less than 1,000 of them remain in the Gobi Desert and Mongolia, combined.
But there’s more to the camel family story.
As previously mentioned, seven million years ago some North American camels headed to Eurasia. But other camels stayed behind in North America. Four million years later, descendants of those camels headed in another direction: south.
Some three million years ago, a land bridge formed between North and South America. Before the existence of this land bridge, the two continents had been completely separated. Once camels crossed into what we now call South America, where they continued to diversify biologically.
The last known native camels to live in North America went extinct a mere 13,000 years ago, which is a mere drop in the bucket of time when you look at the bigger picture. But there are still native remnants of the camel family living in the Americas today. The modern camelid family has six types: dromedary camels, Bactrian camels, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos.
The camel may do well in our climate. After all, we are in the same latitude as many countries that have a great appreciation for this majestic animal.
And for those who find these camel facts to be interesting, now might be a good time to mention that the early explorers didn’t technically “introduce” horses to the Americas.
Horses lived in North America millions of years ago, too.
If you find all of that surprising, wait until you hear about the fact that it was not buffalo that roamed “Home on the Range,” but bison — a completely different animal and a whole other story.