Camels are known today for inhabiting the desert regions of the Middle East and North Africa as well as colder steppes and deserts of Asia.
However, camel evolution started at a completely different place. Camel origin can be traced back to a place you’d least expect to find a camel, a rainforest of North America.
Camel Evolution Tree
The earliest camels, Protylopus and Poebrotherium, appeared about 45 million years ago in the North American rainforests and savannahs.
Over the millions of years that followed, a different genus of camels evolved, leading to the modern camels (Camelus) we know today.
Important Camels Through Camel History
Here’s a tabular representation of some members of the Camelidae family throughout history.
|45 million years ago
|37 million years ago
|37 million years ago
|32 million years ago
|22 million years ago
|5 million years ago
|21 million years ago
|5 million years ago
|14 million years ago
|2 million years ago
|4 million years ago
|13,000 years ago
|12 million years ago
|1 million years ago
|5 million years ago*
|3 million years ago
The members of the tribes Lamini (including genus Lama) and Camelini (including genus Camelus) diverged from one another in the Early Miocene, around 17 million years ago.
*Do note that the mentioned years in the article are just approximations, based on various scientific hypotheses, experiments, and available literature, and are not to be taken as undeniable fact.
The first member of the Camelidae family that appeared was Protylopus.
Protylopus was the first camel that lived in North America, about 45 million years ago, during the late Eocene epoch.
Protylopus was a small-sized animal, weighing about 50 pounds (around 20 kg), was two feet tall and two feet long (60 cm).
It was a Tylopod with four-toed feet that had hooves, with front legs shorter than its hind legs.
Protylopus had a simple arrangement of low-crowned teeth along the jaw, with no hump on its back and with a three-chambered stomach.
Its diet consisted of soft leaves and fruit, a trait that will have a defining effect on its evolutionary history.
Around 37 million years ago, the dense forests that were Protylopus’ habitat, had been slowly turning into open woodlands.
This has led to the evolution of Protylopus to a creature called Poebrotherium.
Poebrotherium was a camelid that appeared 37 million years ago in the Oligocene Epoch. It was a camel ancestor that lived in the open-woodland areas of today’s North Dakota.
It was larger than the Protylopus, being around 3 feet long (90 cm), weighing 75-100 pounds (45 kg), and being goat-sized.
Its teeth were larger and were angled forward to enable easier vegetation shearing. Judging by its teeth, Poebrotherium relied on leaves as its source for food, other than grass.
Poebrotherium disappeared about 32 million years ago and its fossils were discovered across western North America, in different habitats, ranging from wooded grasslands to shortgrass prairies.
The Miocene Epoch has seen camels evolve, increasing in size, developing longer necks and limbs and a pacing gait, a characteristic of modern camels, that allowed them to cross the expanding steppe and grasslands of the time.
Various sorts of camelids appeared, such as Oxydactylus (a camel with a giraffe-like neck), Stenomylus (a miniature gazelle-like camel), Procamelus, Aepycamelus, Megatylopus, Camelops, Paracamelus, and many others.
Procamelus was a camelid that existed 22 million years ago in North America, during the Miocene Epoch. They are the earliest members of the true Camelidae family.
Procamelus varied in size, ranging from a sheep size to that of a deer.
Procamelus had a small pair of incisor teeth on the upper jaw and large teeth that allowed it to eat tough vegetation more easily.
Procamelus went extinct about 5 million years ago.
Aepycamelus was a camelid that existed 21 million years ago. With a size of nineteen feet (5.8 m), it was the earliest of the giant camels.
Aepycamelus was the first camelop that had feet similar to modern camels.
It had developed a pacing gait, a way of walking where the front and back leg of the same side of the body move forward at the same time. That is how a camel walks today.
It mostly fed off the tree canopy and its fossils have been found from Florida to California.
Aepycamelus went extinct about 5 million years ago.
Megatylopus was a camelid that existed 14 million years ago in North America, during the Miocene to late Pliocene Epoch. It is one of the first camels that had a hump.
Megatylopus was one of the largest camels ever, standing at 11.5 feet tall (3.5m), and weighing around 3700 lbs (1698 kg).
Megatylopus went extinct around 2 million years ago.
Camelops, the Western Camel, was a camelid that existed 4 million years ago in North America, during the Pliocene and end of the Pleistocene Epoch.
Camelops was one of the largest camelids in the Pleistocene Epoch and was widely distributed throughout western North America, from the subtropics of Honduras to the arctic latitudes of Canada.
It mostly fed on various leaves, shrubs, and grass.
Camelops’ size was around 7 feet (2.2 m) and weighed around 1,800 pounds (800 kg) with large specimens up to around 2,600 lb (1,200 kg).
Divergence dating indicates that the lineages of Camelops and Camelus separated during the Middle to Late Miocene, around 11 million years ago.
Camelops were among the last surviving of the North American camels and went extinct around 13,000 years ago.
Paracamelus, the ancestor of modern camels, originated in North America during the Middle Miocene. Paracamelus crossed the Bering bridge and moved into Asia, ultimately reaching Europe and Africa, about 7 million years ago.
As the Bering Isthmus flooded around 5.5 million years ago, the Eurasian Paracamelus became separated from the North American one.
Paracamelus finally became extinct in the North American Arctic and Subarctic by the middle Pleistocene, roughly 1 million years ago.
The first fossils of Paracamelus, the ancestor of modern camels, were found in Nevada, dating 12 million years ago.
Fossils of Paracamelus have also been recorded in Asia, Europe (e.g. Spain), Northern Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.
1. High Arctic Camel
One of the strangest places Paracamelus fossils have been found was Ellesmere Island in northern Canada, where a 3.4 million-year-old Paracamelus fossil was reported.
The temperature there at the time was often below zero, with 6-month-long winters and very few sun rays. Not the place you’d expect to find a camel at!
This High Arctic camel is an extinct giant camel that lived in the High Arctic Region, in a boreal-type forest environment during a global warm phase on the planet around 3.4 million years ago.
Collagen fingerprinting, in combination with evidence for large body size, suggests that the Ellesmere camel and the giant Yukon camel are near relatives.
Its fossils were discovered 750 miles (1200 km) away from the place where the Yukon camel fossil was found and represents the most northerly record for early camels.
2. Yukon Giant Camel
Another important member of the Paracamelus genus is the Yukon giant camel.
Yukon giant camel is an extinct camelid that lived around 3.5 million years ago in Yukon.
Yukon camel fossils discovered in Old Crow River Basin in Northern Yukon showed that the giant camel was much bigger compared to its modern relatives.
It had long, massive limbs and a large hump and was around 11.5 feet tall (3.5 m).
Before the discovery of the High Arctic Camel’s fossils, the Yukon giant camel was the most northerly recorded camelid showing that the Paracamelus lineage had extended at least as far North and East as Beringia.
Camelus, today’s modern camel, was the first camelid to evolve from Paracamelus outside of North America, around 5 million years ago, during the Pliocene Epoch.
And it and its descendants are what is now known as the Old World Camels.
Some sources say that Camelus existed as early as 3 million years ago.
Camelus includes 3 species of camels:
- Bactrian Camel (Camelus Bactrianus)
- Dromedary Camel (Camelus Dromedarius)
- WIld Camel (Camelus Ferus)
The Bactrian camel (two-humped) and Dromedary Camel (one-humped) are domesticated, while the only remaining wild species of a camel is the two-humped Camelus ferus.
The divergence between Dromedaries and Bactrian camels has been dated at about 4.4 million years ago according to this study.
The divergence between wild and domestic Bactrian camels is estimated to have happened between 0.7 and 1.5 million years ago in the Pleistocene, long before their domestication happened (5000 years ago).
It is thought that camels evolved because of environmental changes and due to natural selection.
Further reading: Why did camels evolve?
Hemiauchenia are camelids that evolved in North America around 10 million years ago, giving rise to modern Lamas.
Some 3 million years ago, members of the Hemiauchenia genus crossed the land bridge Isthmus of Panama during the Great American Biotic Interchange and spread to South America.
This South American lineage gave rise to all of South America’s camelids.
Lama is a genus that includes all South American camelids, the wild guanaco and vicuña, and the domesticated llama and alpaca.
These are also referred to as the New World Camels.
The new-world camelids are smaller versions of their cousins, the camels, and live in the mountains in South America.
Further reading: Is a camel related to a llama?
What Did Camels Evolve From?
Modern Camels (Camelus) evolved from Paracamelus, the first camel to pass the Bering Isthmus Bridge and enter Asia 7.5 million years ago. Llamas, vicunas, alpacas, and guanacos, evolved from a common ancestor that crossed the Isthmus of Panama and entered South America 3 million years ago.
Where Did Camels Evolve from?
Camels first evolved from North America, ultimately spreading to the Gobi Desert in China, the steppes of Mongolia, and the desert areas in North Africa and the Middle East where they live today. Ancestor of llamas, vicunas, alpacas, and guanacos, just like the one of Camelus, evolved from North America, ultimately spreading to South America.
Camels have a long history, dating about 45 million years back into the past. They first started in the rainforests of North America, and as the climate changed, were forced to adapt to other habitats.
Starting very small-sized, and as the time progressed, the camels grew in size, developing their most famous physical features.
About 7 million years ago, the ancestor of modern camels, Paracamelus entered Eurasia, paving a path for the evolution of camels as we know today.