Modern Camel Ancestors and Evolution

Are you ready to be surprised?  What scientists recognize as the earliest camel was in fact not what you’d expect a camel to be at all. They were tiny animals without hooves or the distinctive humps that camels have today. Protylopus lived in the Eocene Epoch, 45 million years ago. They were about the size of a small dog, only two feet tall and two feet long. It is likely that they would have only weighed close to 50 pounds. Camels today can often reach over 1,000 pounds.


Earliest Ancestor of the Camel ProtylopusAll Protylopus surprisingly lived in North America. Their habitats included forests, where they ate soft plants and leaves, standing on their hind legs in order to reach food that is a little higher up. How can scientists tell that? Their teeth show common traits of being herbivorous, hinting at their diet, and their front legs are shorter than their back legs. Fossils also show that they had toes, three or four on each foot, rather than hooves. Hooves don’t emerge in the fossil record as an evolutionary trait, helping hooved animals to run faster and surer, until much later, after Protylopus went extinct. However, there are hints of what was to come, as scientists believe that Protylopus would have carried weight unevenly across the four toes, favoring the third and fourth toe.


Fossil of Ancient Ancestor of the Modern Camel
Fossil from Badlands National Park

As the forested areas where Protylopus lived began to dry out and become more like the grasslands that would shape wildlife in North America, the genus evolved into what would be more recognizably a camel ancestor. Poebrotherium was around the size of a goat, and with emerging hooved feet. They carried their weight more centrally on their toes, although the transition from toes to hooves had not yet been made. They might have resembled llamas, with narrow faces and long necks. These animals lived across the Midwest 35 million years ago. Their teeth were perfect for shredding vegetation.


Single Humped Camel in Desert
Modern Camel

At this point, you may be wondering what camels are doing in North America. We don’t have any camels around here now. As the genus evolved into two different species, Procamelus and Paracamelus, both direct ancestors of the modern-day genus Camelus, they migrated across the Bering Strait into Asia. In the transition, fossil remains in Canada show that these camels were quite large, easily bigger than modern-day camels, and equipped for harsh, cold climates. It is during this time, also, that their hooves became fully adapted and their signature humps emerged. Today, camels use their humps to store fat, which they live off of when food is scarce. These Arctic camels used their humps for that same reason. At the same time, though, Procamelus and Paracamelus also moved South into South America, where they became llamas and alpacas, relatives of camels today.


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As to how some camels came to have one hump or two, scientists postulate that the two-humped Bactrian camels directly evolved from their North American ancestors, and the one-humped Dromedary lost one hump as a result of moving into warmer climates. The storage of fat helps to keep Bactrians warm, even at sub-zero temperatures, along with a thick coat of fur. Dromedaries living in warm climates wouldn’t survive if they had these adaptations.

I hope you found this interesting. If you have a question or request, please leave that in a comment below. Thank you for reading and, until next time, goodbye!

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