A Brief Fossil History of Camelids

What do World War I and II, penguin flippers, heat exhaustion and dehydration, Snowmass ski resort, the inspiration for Indiana Jones, warm-blooded fish, the accidental death of John Ainsworth Horrocks, the neck of the giraffe, luscious eyelashes, and Hawaiian seabirds all have in common? If you thought that they will all be featured in this three-part post about the dromedary camel, then you are correct.

Meredith Leung riding on the back of a dromedary camel Camelus dromedarius in the Sahara Desert in Morocco on Semester at Sea Spring 2016 with Michael Collett Kim Kassander Haley Collins and Emily Kaplan Photo Credit Zack Neher

Meredith Leung, one of my friends from Semester at Sea, riding on the back of a dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius) in the Sahara Desert in Morocco.

While in Morocco, my friends and I got the chance to ride dromedary camels in the Sahara Desert, an opportunity that I was very excited about. The first thing that struck me as we rode out between the dunes was how barren and inhospitable the place was (which probably seems pretty obvious, but was still surprising to witness). I was, however, surprised at how many large shrubs and bushes could be found fairly frequently, a number I imagine would decrease the further into the desert you get. But even with the surprising amount of shrubbery where we were, it didn’t look like a place that would allow animals as large as a camel to survive. But survive they had, for millions of years, and that was one of the things that interested me the most.

A dromedary camel Camelus dromedarius silhouetted against the horizon in the Sahara Desert in Morocco on Semester at Sea Spring 2016 with Michael Collett Kim Kassander Meredith Leung Emily Kaplan and Haley Collins Photo Credit Zack Neher

A domesticated dromedary silhouetted against the horizon.  The single hump on the back of the animal is plainly visible in this photograph.  The related Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) has two humps.

Despite their absence on the continent today, the earliest camels actually evolved in North America, around 35 million years ago (MYA).  These small, early camels looked more like modern gazelle than today’s camels, as they were small, slender creatures with sharp hooves to aid in running.  Over time, they diversified from their small, goat-sized ancestors to a fantastic array of shapes and sizes, and inhabiting an equally diverse set of biomes, a much greater diversity than we see today. Some evolved similar to modern day gazelle, deer, and pronghorn, adapted for faster running in open areas. Others became huge, larger than modern day camels. Still others found their way northwards, inhabiting the most northern reaches of Canada in the frigid Arctic. It wasn’t until a few million years ago that the camelids found their way outside of North America. In one direction, we see the ancestors of the modern day guanaco, vicuña, alpaca, and llama cross the Isthmus of Panama into South America. Meanwhile, the ancestor of the modern dromedary and Bactrian camels dispersed from Alaska into Russia via the Bering Land Bridge (which humans would later use to cross in the opposite direction).

Mounted fossil skeleton of the extinct camelid Paleolama on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas with Cian Kinderman Seamus Kieran Mikaila Bloomfield and Emily Barber Photo Credit Zack Neher

A mounted fossil skeleton of the extinct camelid Paleolama on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas.  Paleolama was a mid-sized North American species that lived during the Ice Age.  You can see the resemblance in the overall body plan between Paleolama and the modern dromedary.

Humans would have actually encountered wild camels in North America when they first arrived during the last Ice Age.  Even in Colorado, we find the remains of Ice Age camels that would have lived alongside more famous and charismatic megafauna, such as the Columbian mammoth. In 2011, fossil bones of the genus Camelops were unearthed during the massive Ice Age dig at the Snowmass ski resort, discovered in the same layers as the bones of Columbian mammoth, deer, and bison. Although the exact cause of extinction is not entirely certain, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that many of the large Ice Age mammals were driven to extinction by the arrival of early humans approximately 10,000 years ago, making the Ice Age Camelops another possible casualty of the spread of humanity.*

Fossil skull cast of the extinct camelid Camelops on display at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert California with Mark Julie and Dani Neher and Rick Nick and Sydney Carlson Photo Credit Zack Neher

This is a fossil skull cast of the extinct camelid Camelops, on display at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert, California.  Check out how large those nasty-looking front teeth are.  Unlike deer, camels evolved offensive weapons such as large, sharp teeth to combat potential predators.  Even a bite from today’s camels is nothing to joke about.

Even though we typically think of camels as exclusively desert animals, the fossil record shows us that in prehistory, the camel family had become adapted to a wide variety of habitats and niches. The development of a nomadic, desert lifestyle actually appears to be a fairly recent one!

Michael %22Big Mike%22 Collett riding on the back of a dromedary camel Camelus dromedarius in the Sahara Desert in Morocco on Semester at Sea Spring 2016 with Meredith Leung Kim Kassander Emily Kaplan and Haley Collins Photo Credit Zack Neher

Michael “Big Mike” Collett riding on the back of a dromedary in the Sahara.  See where the green rope is attached to the camel’s lower jaw?  If you look at the picture of the Camelops skull, you can see a large gap between the front teeth and the molars, called a diastema.  For these camels, many of the ropes were looped through here.

Join us next time, as we investigate an adaptation of the modern camel that helps keep it cool in the desert heat….and helps keeps penguins warm underwater!


* Unfortunately, the investigation is a bit of a COLD CASE.  Boom, Ice Age puns.




Introducing “The Natural World: Connections”

On June 27th, 2012, I posted for the very first time on my original blog, The Natural World.  I was going into my senior year of high school, and was very eager to talk about dinosaurs and other animals on the World Wide Web.  It’s been almost four years now since I first started that blog, and I’ve changed a lot (at least I keep telling myself I have).  Last year, I decided to try and go through the several hundred blog posts I had posted and attempt to bring them up to date, both with any recent scientific advances, but also with a greater sense of academic rigor.  This task was daunting, to say the least, and difficult to do.  I was essentially rewriting posts that I no longer had a great deal of interest in, which kept me from trying to create new and interesting posts that were more relevant to my life today.  My friends suggested starting over, and the idea of a fresh start definitely appealed to me, so here we are.  I’m changing the name of my old blog to “The Natural World: Archives,” and this new blog is “The Natural World: Connections.”*  I’m really looking forward to being able to take advantage of the exciting features that WordPress has to offer, and I think I’ll be able to offer up a better system of picture viewing, as well.


The new blog, replete with a brand new blog logo.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll probably start explaining where some of the images in the logo actually came from.

The main focus of the blog has not changed, I still aim to promote fun and educational natural history reading.  However, the scope of my topics has definitely broadened, and some posts may be a little more off topic than others.  From everything that I’ve ever learned about learning, I believe that making connections is one of the best ways to learn about something new.  If you can connect a topic to something that you understand better, it will take less time and energy to understand.  It’s with these ideas in mind that I’m going to haphazardly construct my posts.

I have just returned from the study abroad program “Semester at Sea,” where we got to visit a number of different countries around the world, and make some amazing friends in the process.  For this introduction post, I thought I would share a few of the pictures that I got over the last four months, more or less in order.

Real talks in the Pacific Ocean with Michael Collett Photo Credit Zack Neher

Crossing the majestic Pacific Ocean.  It was easy to sit out on deck and watch the waves for hours.  During the Pacific crossing, we were able to spot a number of different seabirds, including several species of albatross and booby, several whales, a number of dolphins, flying fish, and believe it or not, a random owl an entire day out from Japan (and yes, I do have the photos to prove it).

Sunset on the Pacific Ocean Photo Credit Zack Neher

Sunrise on the Pacific.

Glorious Mt. Fuji as viewed from a road along the bus route in Hakone with Michael Collett Lacey Gasaway and Michael Sharp Photo Credit Zack Neher

Our first foreign stop was Japan.  On day three, I went with a few of my friends to Hakone to try and see the stratovolcano Mount Fuji.  We got really lucky, and fortunately it was a pretty clear day.

Zack Neher on a boat in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam Photo Credit Sonia Szeton

In Vietnam, I got the opportunity to check out the fascinating karst landscape of Ha Long Bay.

Michael Collett and Zack Neher in Munnar in Kerala in India Photo Credit Teddy Castro

In India, our group and I stayed in the southern state of Kerala the entire time, and we spent most of our time in local national parks and nature reserves.  Here is me with my buddy Michael Collett near the beautiful town of Munnar.

Two ships of the Indian Navy, the research vessel A74 INS Sagardhwani and the Sukanya class offshore patrol vessel P53 INS Savitri, pass each other in the waters of Cochi or Cochin in Kerala India Photo Credit Zack Neher

Our ship, the MV World Odyssey, was docked in Cochin, which is also the location of the Southern Naval Command of the Indian Navy.  As such, we got the opportunity to spot a number of the Navy’s ships steaming through, sometimes even conducting exercises.  In this photograph, we have the INS Sagardhwani (A74) on the left, and the Sukanya class offshore patrol vessel INS Savitri (P53) on the right.

An Olive Ridley sea turtle Lepidochelys olivacea in the Indian Ocean Photo Credit Zack Neher

For the most part, the seas were very calm between India and Mauritius, and by spending a lot of time out on deck, I was able to see some pretty exciting animals!  I’m fairly confident that this is an olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), based on the asymmetry of the costal scutes on the back of the animal.

The gang after snorkeling in Mauritius from left to right Teddy Castro Kim Kassander Mark Oldani Meghan with an H Adams and Zack Neher

Mauritius was a refueling and resupplying stop for us, and we only spent one day on land.  I was in a Field Lab (each class you take has one full-day field lab associated with it) for my Marine Biology class, and we got to go snorkeling!  This is me with a few of my friends, as we wait in line to get back on the ship.  From left to right, we have Teddy Castro, Kim Kassander, my roommate Mark Oldani, Meghan (with an “H”) Adams, and myself.

The Mountains of Mauritius seen behind the funnel of the MV World Odysseys Deutschland Semester at Sea Photo Credit Zack Neher

A few of the mountains of Mauritius from the top deck of our ship, the MV World Odyssey (or the MS Deutschland for you German fans of Das Traumschiff).  Until recently, Mauritius was the only home of the flightless pigeon-cousin, the dodo.

A pair of long beaked common dolphins Delphinus capensis porpoising in the waters two days out from Cape Town in South Africa Indian Ocean Photo Credit Zack Neher

Dolphins are not my specialty (and neither are sea turtles), but with the help of the Internet and the interpretive labels at the Iziko South African Museum, I have identified this dolphin as a long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis).  In the days leading up to our arrival in Cape Town, South Africa, the marine life became increasingly more abundant.  For the first time since we departed Mexico, we were able to see seals, and we also spotted several enormous pods of dolphins, a very high concentration of seabirds, and even two sharks!

Zack Neher at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town in front of the mounted skeletons of the spinosaur theropod Suchomimus and the juvenile sauropod dinosaur Jobaria

Here I am at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town.  They had a fantastic exhibit on paleontology, focusing a lot on the local Permian Karoo fauna.  They had some dinosaur fossils as well, including these mounted casts of the spinosaur Suchomimus attacking a juvenile Jobaria, a type of sauropod, long-necked dinosaur.

Zack Neher in Kruger National Park South Africa

I was also fortunate enough to be able to fly to Kruger National Park and take a safari, which was an experience that I had wanted to do since childhood.  Unfortunately, I got very ill the night before the full-day safari, but modern medicine saved the day, and I was able to lean against the back window thing and have some fun.

Baby African elephnat Loxodonta africana in the wilds of Kruger National Park South Africa Photo Credit Zack Neher

Here is a baby African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Kruger.  Unfortunately, elephant overpopulation has become a real issue in the park.

Zack Neher and Michael Collett on top of Table Mountain National Park in the Cape Floral Kingdom in Cape Town South Africa Photo Credit Zack Neher

My buddy Michael Collett and I on top of of Table Mountain in Cape Town.  Table Mountain National Park is home to the Cape Floral Region, one of six of the world’s floral kingdoms.

A trio of African Penguins Spheniscus demersus on the beach at Simon's Town in Cape Town South Africa with Michael Collett and Teddy Castro Photo Credit Zack Neher

I wasn’t about to leave South Africa without getting my first chance to see penguins in the wild, even if it meant getting back to the ship late (a possibility that, for a period of time, we thought might be reality).  We got lucky, and were able to see a number of African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) relaxing on land in Simon’s Town.

A view of the tropical rainforest in the Kakum National Park in Ghana from the top of a treehouse with Michael Collett and Caleb LarnerdPhoto Credit Zack Neher

Our next stop was Ghana, where we spent our first night in a treehouse in Kakum National Park.  We got to do the canopy walk early in the morning, which was an amazing experience as well.

Caleb Larnerd Haley Collins and Zack Neher in the Shai Hills Resource Reserve in Ghana

My friends Cal Larnerd and Haley Collins and I visit the Shai Hills Resource Reserve in Ghana, where we had a guide who worked at the park drive around with us in the taxi (on the right is our taxi driver, Yaw).

Sand dunes in the Sahara Desert with Kim Kassander Michael Collett Meredith Leung Haley Collins Emily Kaplan Photo Credit Zack Neher

In Morocco, we spent a very long time on bus rides to get to the Sahara Desert.  It was pretty crazy to think that just a week and a half before, we had been in a rainforest.

The infamous Loch Ness near Inverness in Scotland United Kingdom Photo Credit Zack Neher

Before I went home to Colorado, I spent a few days in England, Ireland, and Scotland.  Here’s a picture of the famous Loch Ness.  Unfortunately, I saw no sign of the Loch Ness Monster.


This is just a few brief snapshots of what I’ve been up to the last few months.  I’ve got a big summer planned and there’s a lot to do, so stay tuned for some exciting content coming up soon!