Bruce Patterson, curator of mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, said the camel finding shows Panama was clearly part of North America, because the species didn’t make it into South America until much later.
“In a sense it really enlarges the ecological envelop of the camel radiation to have them living in tropical rainforests and browsing,” Patterson said.
The camels are believed to have originated in Florida and Texas and then evolved as they moved southward.
By studying the teeth of the camels, scientists can determine what they ate. While the molars of today’s camels tend to be flat from grazing on grasses, the camels of Panama had more ridged teeth, indicating they were browsers that ate a variety of plant life. The species is now extinct in the Americas but researchers say they likely evolved into the llamas and guanacos now seen in the Andes.
Rincon discovered the fossils in 2008 and uncovered pieces of a jaw belonging to one animal over the next two years. He said Wednesday that the remains had been covered in volcanic ash over time and were well preserved.
“It’s something like Pompeii,” he said, referring to the Roman city that was preserved when buried by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago.
Rincon traveled back to the university in Gainesville, Fla., and began putting the pieces together. Many of the remains had a green coating from the volcanic ash that he had to carefully remove. Soon he realized he had nearly a complete jaw and that it belonged to a camel.
“I was excited,” the 33-year-old researcher said, adding he was surprised by their unusual teeth. “They have kind of crocodilian teeth. I’m still trying to understand” that.
In all, fossils from about five camels have been found. Four of the recovered jaws belong to the larger species, which bear many similarities but are different in size. The taller of the two likely stood no more than three feet tall.
The researchers start each day early to avoid the sun’s strongest rays and get called to excavate sites as workers expanding the canal come across new discoveries. After about four years of field work, they have uncovered numerous trees, plants, frogs, rodents and crocodiles dating millions of years.
But camels hadn’t been discovered anywhere in Panama before.
“It’s something you don’t even dream about,” Jaramillo said.
Independent voices from the TWT Communities
Entertainment News and Reviews from Washington, D.C. and beyond.
A carefully guided tour through the confusing world of modern bookselling and publishing.
A politically conservative and morally liberal Hebrew alpha male hunts left-wing viper
World's Ugliest Dog Contest
Spelling Bee finale
Marines train Afghan soldiers
Rolling Thunder 2013
Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal