Camels are known as ships of the desert. But despite the familiar images of long camel caravans crossing the harsh conditions of African and Asian deserts, they came from a different continent.
Camels originated in North America, about 45 million years ago. The first member of the Camelidae family was Protylopus which appeared in the rainforests of southwestern North America during the Eocene Epoch.
The Camelidae family consists of two tribes, the Camelini (the Old World Camels) and the Lamini (the New world Camels).
These two North American tribes split from one another about 17 million years ago, during the late Early Miocene, continuing the evolution of camels that had started 30 million years prior to that.
Today, the Camelini tribe is represented by 3 species:
- Domestic Dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius)
- Wild Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus)
- Domestic Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus).
The one-humped camel (Dromedary) and two-humped camel (Bactrian) diverged about 4.4 million years ago according to a study from 2014, while the split between the wild and domestic Bactrian camel was more recent and estimated to have happened about 700,000 years ago.
Further reading: Main Difference Between One-Humped And Two-Humped Camels
The presumed common ancestor of the Camelini tribe, Paracamelus, was the first camelid to cross the then-exposed Bering Isthmus and enter into Eurasia during the Late Miocene, about 7.5 million years ago, giving rise to the camels we know today.
The Lamini tribe, on the other hand, is represented by 4 species today:
- Domestic Llamas (Lama glama)
- Domestic Alpacas (Lama pacos)
- Wild Guanacos (Lama guanicoe)
- Wild Vicunas (Lama vicugna)
One study suggests that alpaca diverged from the other three species about 10 million years ago, while Guanaco and Llama diverged from their common ancestor in the early Pleistocene, about 1.4 million years ago.
The ancestor of these South American camelids is estimated to have entered South America during the Great American Biotic Interchange, crossing the land connecting North and South America, the Isthmus of Panama. That happened around the Pliocene Epoch, about 3 million years ago.
Further reading: How llamas and camels are related
When Did Camels Roam North America?
Camels roamed North America from 45 million years ago up until 10,000 years ago.
Throughout its history, North America has seen a fair share of camel species on its ground.
Protylopus and Poebrotherium were the first camels that drifted through the rainforests and savannahs of North America.
In the millions of years that followed, many camel species appeared and disappeared, traversing the open plains of North America in search of food.
Camelids such as Aepycamelus, Megatylopus, Megacamelus, Procamelus, Paracamelus, and many others marched across North America, with some ultimately reaching South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
When Did Camels Go Extinct In North America?
Camels went extinct in North America about 10,000 years ago, when Camelops, the last North American camel, died off.
This giant camel existed from around 4 million years ago until recently, when it became another extinct camel species from the grounds of North America.
Camelops lived in different habitats and adapted to different climate requirements. Those included subtropical areas of today’s Honduras, as well as the Arctic frozen parts of now modern Canada.
Camelops looked a lot like the dromedary camels of today and mostly fed on leaves, shrubs, and grass.
Why Did Camels Go Extinct In North America?
Human hunting, combined with the climate changes and camels’ inability to fully adapt at the end of the last Ice Age is thought to be the main reason why wild camels went extinct in North America.
The first camels were rather small and had a three-chambered stomach. Because of that, they are fed on soft leaves and fruits, rather than grass.
Due to environmental and climate changes, such food was getting less and less available, causing some genera of camel to go extinct.
But while some failed to adapt to those changes, other species of camels managed to do so. They developed longer limbs and grew bigger to reach and find food more easily.
Some members of the species even used the opportunity to cross the Bering Isthmus and enter Asia, while others went the other way, into South America.
Camelops was thriving in North America for several million years. The Earth was getting warmer at the end of the Pleistocene, which suited the camel.
Its long limbs allowed it to cross bigger distances in search of food.
Unfortunately, that all changed about 10,000 years ago when the last members of this wild North American camel died off.
Early humans were actively hunting them, as shown by findings at Wally’s Beach in Canada, where butchered camel bones were discovered.
Camels have seen their rise and fall in North America.
Growing from a rabbit-sized animal, to the one we know today, has taken millions of years.
And through millions of years, lots of camel species appeared.
They survived and adapted to all sorts of North America’s climate, from the tropical to the ice-cold ones, ultimately migrating to Asia, Europe, and Africa.
Further reading: Does a Camel Migrate?
However, not all of them managed to survive history. There are 7 species of camels today in the world, but none in North America.
Human hunting and climate changes prevented these magnificent mammals from enduring there.