Camels are weird. I think we like them because their curmudgeonly reputation reminds us of someone we know (or ourselves!). Easy to recognise and totally unlike any other mammal, the “ship of the desert” is always included in Noah’s ark toys and first dictionaries. Budding zoologists may even realise that there are two different species of proper camel; the Bactrian (Camelus bactrianus), with two humps and the Dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) with one. I always remember which is which by looking at the first letter. A capital B has two humps, and a capital D has one!
The more astute amongst you may know that this is actually less than half the story. There are other camels. In fact, these other camels represent the greatest diversity of the surviving camel family. South American llamas (Lama glama), alpacas (Vicugna pacos), guanacos (Lama guanicoe), and vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) are also camels! These guys are the stay-at-homes. They never left their place of origin. Camelids are a new world radiation, and a huge diversity of fossil forms are known. Camels with necks like giraffes, camels as large as moose, camels as small as goats. This was a successful and dynamic lineage, with many different forms. The ancestors of the Bactrian and Dromedary fled west across the Bering strait. Some of the New World species even survived until the end of the Pleistocene, as Twilight Beasts; encountered by those American pioneers who first hiked over the Beringian land bridge. Probably the very last of yesterday’s camels was the species Camelops hesternus.
The binomial name tells us everything we need to know. The genus Camelops comes from the greek for “camel-face”. The species name hesternus, means “yesterday’s”. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate description. It’s also sometimes known as the Western camel as no fossils have been found east of the Mississippi. In life it would not have looked too different from the surviving Dromedary. Subtle changes in the neck and skull, and slightly longer legs are the main distinguishing features. Of course, we don’t know whether Camelops had one hump (or two, or…?) as the hump is made of fatty tissue, which does not survive long in the fossil record.
Camelops is one of the few extinct megafauna for which we have good, solid evidence for hunting by Clovis and pre-Clovis peoples. Sites like Wally’s beach in Canada show clear association of lithics and cutmarked bones. I’ve never eaten camel but many folk consider it a delicacy. Aristotle himself is on record saying that camel was the most delicate meat. There are also some other tantalising pieces of evidence to show that Camelops was important in the lives of palaeoindians. An incredible specimen from the site of Tequixquiac in Mexico seems to be art made from the sacral bone of Camelops, carved into the likeness of a face. This amazing piece was found in 1870 and then went missing between 1895 and 1956. It was finally recovered from the desk drawer of a geologist, who had kept it hidden there for the better part of sixty years. Pleistocene art from the Americas is incredibly rare; the fact that this important piece was lost for so long is nothing short of unbelievable.
Camelops has also been in the news thanks to advances in ancient DNA. Pete Heintzman, Grant Zazula, Beth Shapiro, and colleagues have recently managed to sequence the complete mitochondrial DNA, and a small percentage of the nuclear DNA from 3 specimens of Yukon camel and used that information to finally sort out their place within the camelid family tree. Surprisingly, Camelops hesternus appears to be on the same branch as the Bactrian and Dromedary camels. It seems that while the ancestor of C. hesternus roamed the ancestral home of the camels, the ancestor of the Bactrian and Dromedary started the long trek to Eurasia sometime around 10 million years ago.
Written by @DeepFriedDNA
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