Prehistoric Camel Exhibit



Camels are associated only with the deserts of Asia and Africa, leaving their true North America origin unknown until recent research. According to scientists, camels originated in North America and most prehistoric species developed here. Camelops hesternus, the Giant Western Camel, was extremely abundant in the western United States and Canada during the Ice Age. Remains of these immense creatures have been found in western Franklin County along the White Bluffs near Ringold, in Kennewick’s Coyote Canyon, the Taunton Hills near Othello, and along the lower Palouse River Canyon.

Research suggests that Camelops hesternus would have been adapted to arid scrublands and grasslands, and also could tolerate cold, snow-covered grasslands. Camelops hesternus was well adapted to many different conditions. Fossilized bonesfrom Camelops hesternus have been unearthed with other prehistoric mammals including the woolly mammoth, horses, scimitar cat, steppe bison, caribou, and even a black-footed ferret (not so giant at all), just to name a few. The Giant Western Camel probably first migrated north to Beringia around 100,000 years ago and disappeared entirely from North America when the Ice Age was nearing its end some 10,000 years ago. It was taller than today’s two-humped camel (Bactrian) and may not have had any humps at all.

Camelops hesternus was more closely related to the present-day alpaca and llama branch of the camel family tree. Camelops was one of the true camels-the ancestors of present day domestic camels known from the deserts around the world. Many of the adaptations that camels have for living in the dry, sandy deserts actually originated in the Arctic. For example, their wide split hooves which are so good for walking on sand dunes, were likely an adaptation to walking on snow. Their humps, which are fatty deposits to sustain periods with limited or no food, were likely very effective to living in harsh winters.

The last major advance of the North American Laurentide ice sheet covered hundreds of thousands of square miles, including most of Canada and a large portion of the northern United States. The maximum ice extent occurred approximately 21,000 years ago during the last glacial maximum (LGM), known as the Late Wisconsinan. The advance of continental glaciers and lowering of sea levels created a land bridge for migration of mammals to and from Asia and North America. Today, most archeologists and other scholars agree that it was across this land bridge during the Late Wisconsinan that humans first passed to and from Asia into North America.