About the Animals: Camels

Camel Hero Image

When you picture camels, you might think of humped inhabitants of deserts in the Middle East.

But camels didn’t always have humps or traverse sand dunes. They started off the size of a beagle, but with much longer legs and neck, and had no humps or bumps. They first appeared in subtropical forests in North America, during the Eocene Epoch.

From there, early camels traveled long journeys, with growing bodies and changing feet, until they became two distinct evolutionary lines.

Some migrated over the Isthmus of Panama to South America and evolved into modern day llamas, vicunas, alpacas, and guanacos.

Others used the land bridge across the Bering Strait to cross to Asia and eventually to Africa. Along the way, they evolved into the camels we know today.

Getting Over the Hump

Click one of the buttons below the map to begin exploring how camels migrated over time
From 46 million to six million years ago, camels originated and only lived in North America.
Six million years ago camels crossed the Bering Bridge to Asia and migrated as far south as Africa.
Three million years ago camels (llamas) crossed the Isthmus of Panama to South America.
Today camels are extinct except for parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
46 MYA

The Camel Evolutionary Tree

See how a small, hump-less rabbit-like animal became “the ship of the desert” as the camel evolved to its modern form.

camel evolution tree

3D Models

Nebraska’s Pieces of the Puzzle

Camel fossils found in Nebraska have helped form a better understanding of camel evolution and how it has been affected by changing climate and habitat.

Fossils from three kinds of camels were found at Ashfall Fossil Beds, where many communities of animals perished and were rapidly buried by a cloud of volcanic ash over the course of one to two months. This middle Miocene site from 12 MYA was non-freezing at that time, with warm grasslands and riparian forests. Historical work was done here by paleo sleuth Mike Voorhies.

At Bassett, a site from the Late Miocene (about 8 MYA), the presence of camel specimens, along with tortoises and warm-climate rodents, shows that winter temperatures did not go below freezing for more than a few days. These were mild temperate grasslands. Historical work was done here by paleo sleuth Shane Tucker.

At Big Springs, a site from the Pleistocene (roughly 1.5 MYA), camel specimens have been found, suggesting this was one of the warm, interglacial intervals of the Ice Age. Historical work was done here by paleo sleuth Mike Voorhies.