As the rush intensifies to find new reserves of fossil fuels, digs throughout the West are yielding another byproduct — fossils.
Oilfield workers in western Oklahoma have unearthed deposits of fossils containing extinct species of camel and horse, along with as-yet-uncounted other animals, while excavating a new well, Oklahoma City’s The Oklahoman reports.
An earthmover uncovered the fossilized bones in July after removing 6 meters of soil in the state-run Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area.
Paleontologists brought to the scene identified 13 separate fossil deposits, which have tentatively been dated as far back as 5 million to 12 million years.
Among the identifiable remains so far are the skull a small, primitive horse and the bones of a camel — a mammal that actually originated in the very ancient American West, according to Kyle Davies, a fossil preparator with the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.
“You don’t associate camels with North America, and yet in the fossil record there’s quite a number of camels,” he told The Oklahoman.
“It actually shows that North America was the origin point for camels, and they spread out from here.”
The fossils date to the Miocene epoch, a particularly formative period for the Ancient West that spanned from about 23 million to 5.3 million years ago. This is when the massive Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges first formed, and when what are now the Great Plains sat as their own continent, with life that would seem familiar — but misplaced — compared to today’s Western biota.
It was also a tumultuous time for the young family Camelidae, which came to include the first true camels. The mammals underwent bouts of evolutionary changes that resulted in animals that may have borne little resemblance to the desert-dwellers we know now; some Miocene camels had necks as long as giraffes’, while others had short, stumpy legs.
It wasn’t until about 5 million years ago that modern camels first appeared, but they, along with primordial horses like that found in the Packsaddle, remained on the ancient range well into the days of human habitation.
In fact, a recent study of hand-hewn stone tools discovered in what’s now Boulder, Colorado, found that they contained traces of camel and horse meat, as well as proteins associated with other Ice Age animals like the short-faced bear.[Read about other recently discovered signs of Ice Age hunting: "15,500-Year-Old Mammoth Bones and Hunting Tools Found "Close Together" in Kansas"]
The discovery indicates the wide variety of animals the Ice Age humans used to survive.
And even though epochs separate those 13,000-year-old knives and scrapers from the camel unearthed in Oklahoma’s oilfields, both are reminders of how much the native life of the West has changed.
Robert M. Yohe, & Douglas B. Bamforth (2013). Late Pleistocene protein residues from the Mahaffy cache, Colorado Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.01.015
“Camel fossils found in western Oklahoma date back millions of years, scientist says,” The Oklahoman, September 2, 2013. VXGC2HSK2GE6