Ancient Camels

Artistic impression of a group of four ancient camels standing on the shore of Lake Otero. Two camels are drinking water.

NPS Photo

Fossilized ancient camel footprint with scientific scale.
Fossilized ancient camel footprint with scientific scale

NPS Photo

During the ice age, camels, related more to modern llamas, once lived only in North America. However, the ancient camels or camelops looked more like their modern cousins. They stood around the same height as a modern camel, with similar long necks, faces, and short tails. Camelops may have had a hump, but fatty humps do not preserve well alongside bones.

Camelops preferred to graze on grasslands with a lot of vegetation. During the ice age, a giant freshwater lake called Lake Otero existed in place of the sand dunes we see today. This created a wetter and lusher landscape that attracted camelops.

When the ice age ended, the waters of Lake Otero disappeared, and the dunes of White Sands began to form. Today on the old dry lakebed of Lake Otero, we find fossilized footprints of the camels that once visited the lake. This includes one set of tracks that stretches over two miles long. Camelops left behind easy to recognize tracks. Like modern camels, camelops did not have hooves. Instead, the feet had two toes with a hard, thick nail and thick soles on the bottom of its foot for walking. The toes would spread out while walking creating unique footprints.

The ability of camelops to graze great distances helped it survive and thrive in North America. Yet, that changed when ice age ended around 10,000 years ago. Camels in other parts of the world survived, but camelops in the Americas died off. Scientist still debate the cause of the demise of ice age animals.


Lange, Ian M. Ice Age Mammals of North America: A Guide to the Big, the Hairy, and the Bizarre. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2002.

Quarters, Cindy. "How Do a Camel's Hooves Help It?" Pets on Retrieved November 21, 2015.

Last updated: January 22, 2020

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