Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
           Photo by Ernie Cowan, Anza-Borrego Photography Institute

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CAMELOPS                             Presented by the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Paleontology Society
Camels and Llamas of Anza-Borrego


The family Camelidae, comprising camels and llamas, are native North Americans. The first fossil camels, derived from small, rabbit-sized animals, were found in Utah, Texas, and California in mid-Eocene deposits approximately 45 million years (Ma) old. In the late Oligocene and early Miocene, 25-20 Ma ago, camels underwent rapid evolutionary changes into a wide variety of forms including those with short limbs, those with gazelle-like bodies, and giraffe-like camels with long legs and long necks. Their rich diversity in the late Miocene and Pliocene gradually decreased until there were only a few species remaining at the time of their extinction in North America approximately 11,000 years ago. Camelids migrated into Eurasia 7 Ma ago and evolved into the modern dromedary and bactrian camels. After the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, approximately 3 Ma, they also migrated into South America and established modern llamas, vicunas, alpacas, and guanacos.



Gigantocamelus spatulate was more than 3 m (10 ft) tall at the shoulder


Camels are second, after horses, in number of specimens found in the fossil record of Anza-Borrego. Their remains are more diverse than horses, however, with at least eight different forms represented. The oldest specimens are found in 6-5 Ma-old shallow marine sandstones. They are from the extinct llama Hemiauchenia vera. The youngest camelids of Anza-Borrego, from approximately 0.5 Ma, are also species of Hemiauchenia. The greatest diversity of Anza-Borrego camelids occurred between 3 and 2 million years ago and most likely reflects a comparable diversity of habitats that existed at that time.

In spite of their success in the late Miocene, these adaptable and rugged animals became extinct in North America approximately 11,000 years ago. Both the climate change that occurred at the end of the last ice age, and hunting pressure from Paleoindian peoples have been suggested as reasons for this extinction. Fortunately North America’s emigrant camels and llamas survived to modern times and became one of our most successful exports. 

Teeth and jaw well adapted to coarse vegetation

For a more detailed description of Camelops in Anza-Borrego, see "Extinct Camels and Llamas", by S.David Webb, Kesler Randall and George T. Jefferson, in "Fossil Treasures of the Anza Borrego Desert", George T  Jefferson and Lowell Lindsay, editors, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego California, 2006.

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