Friday, 9 March 2012

Two New Species Of Central American Camel

The lower jaw of Aguascalietia panamaensis
Camels are most often associated with the Sahara Desert. Perhaps the most iconic image of the region is of a train of the bizarre, hump-backed quadrupeds making their way slowly across the sand dunes of Morocco and Egypt. Yet millions of years ago, the geographical range of the camel extended far beyond Africa, as far as the Americas. Fossilized teeth and bones have been found as far afield as Florida. Now palaeontologists from the University of Florida have found evidence of camels even further south.

The llama, one of the most iconic South American mammals
The discoveries, made by a team led by Bruce Macfadden, a curator at the Florida Museum, shed light on the origins of the South American quadrupeds. The two new fossils were found at a dig in Panama. Named, Aguascalietia panamaensis and Aguascalietia minuta, they are the oldest known mammals in Central America, coming in at 20 million years old. What makes this discovery interesting is that it points to the origin of all hoofed animals in South America.

Countries such as Chile and Brazil are famous for the llama, guanaco, alpaca and vicuna. Yet this family of quadrupeds are quite young in geological terms. Even the fossil species are no older than a few million years. Between the two date periods of 20 and 3 million years lies the collision of North and South America at between 3 and 5 million years. This has led the team to believe that these two species of camel are the ancestors of all the South American quadrupeds.

'People think of camels as being in the Old World, but their distribution in the past is different to what we know today,' MacFadden said. 'The ancestors of llamas originated in North America and then when the land bridge formed about 4 to 5 million years ago, they dispersed into South America and evolved into the llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuna.' While the camel's geographical range today is limited to Africa, the Arabian gulf and small parts of Asia, their impact has been rather more significant in the past, affecting the entire ecological makeup of South America.