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Camels in Southern Nevada's Fossil Record

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

By Dr. Rowland, Paleontologist & Las Vegas Natural History Museum Lab Manager

Paleontologists from the LVNHM are actively working on a 15-million-year-old fossil site (Miocene Epoch) in the Horse Spring Formation, north of Lake Mead. We have documented the tracks of canids (members of the dog family), felids (members of the cat family), camels, and at least 2 kinds of birds. The 1st image shows the preserved footprint of a camel from the Horse Spring Formation. The ‘pointy’ end shows the direction that the camel was facing when it left us this beautiful souvenir.

Fossil footprints of vertebrate animals are protected by law; it is illegal to collect them on public land without a permit. Our research is conducted under permit from the Bureau of Land Management - Nevada.

You might be surprised to hear that camels are part of NV’s fossil record. In fact, camels are among the most common fossils―bones as well as footprints―that we find in sedimentary rocks that were deposited over the past few tens of millions of years (Cenozoic Era). In fact, North America is the ancestral home of the camel family. About 7 million years ago (late Miocene time) a few adventurous North American camels wandered up to Alaska, and they crossed the Bering Land Bridge into Asia. Their descendants are the bactrian and dromedary camels of Asia and Africa. More recently, just a few million years ago (Pliocene Epoch), the Isthmus of Panama emerged out of the sea, providing a land connection between North and South America. Some intrepid North American camels ventured across this new land bridge, and they ‘invaded’ South America. Their descendants are today’s South American llamas, vicuñas, and alpacas.

After seeding much of the rest of the world with representatives of this amazing family of desert-tolerant animals, the population of camels in North America went extinct. This extinction happened very recently, only about 11 thousand years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. The 2nd image shows a reconstruction of the Pleistocene camel Camelops hesternus (yesterday’s camel), one of the most common species that we find in the fossiliferous Pleistocene deposits of Southern NV.

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