Wednesday Wonders: Titanotylopus

15 07 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

To paraphrase fantasy author and humorist Terry Pratchett, the fascination humans have for immense size is quite curious, given the fact that many enormous beasts such as elephants are captivating enough without taking their extreme proportions into account. Nevertheless, there is something irrefutably intriguing about objects of considerable magnitude, especially when those objects are in fact living organisms.

I have no doubt that this phenomenon is chiefly responsible for the intellectual appeal of Titanotylopus sp., also known as ‘the Nebraska camel’. Camelids (the family containing camels and llamas) originally evolved in North America during the late Eocene some 40 million years ago and proved so successful that by the early Pleistocene, they had established themselves on every continent except Australia and Antarctica (though some modern species have been artificially introduced to Australia). In fact, the fossil record’s documentation of camelid evolution is just as complete and compelling as that which accompanies equestrian evolution.

Titanotylopus mounted composite skeleton.

Titanotylopus mounted composite skeleton.

One of the most well-known offshoots of this evolutionary branch is Titanotylopus itself. In “Ice Age Mammals Of North America: A Guide To The Big, The Hairy, And The Bizarre”, Ian Lange writes:
Titanotylopus nebraskensis…lived between about 5 million and 1 million years ago during at least part of Nebraska glacial time…It reached a shoulder height of about 12 feet (3.5 meters) and weighed considerably more than 1 ton. In comparison, the living dromendary one-humped camel, Camelus dromedarius, reaches 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) tall at the shoulders, measures 10 feet (3 meters) long, and weighs 1,320 to 2,200 pounds (600 to 1,000 kilograms).”

T. nebraskensis was preceded by the slightly older T. spatulus (aka: “the spatulate-toothed camel”) which, according to Lange, was “of similar size and shape [and] also lived in the greater Nebraska region.” (Please note that not all authors are convinced that T. spatulus truly belongs to the genus, for many classify it as Gigantocamelus fricki based on comparative jaw morphology. Nevertheless, it’s rather likely that the two species are related, regardless of their genus classification.) However, these beasts certainly weren’t restricted to the corn-husker state, and may have even been found as far north as the Yukon. As Dr. Grant Zazula of the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre explains on the organization’s official website:

“The fossils [of the Old Crow river basin in northern Yukon] are chiefly from large camels…[and] are closest in shape and size to a very large member of the true camel group (Camelini) like Titanotylopus.”

Zazula goes on to list the distinguishing characteristics of the genus, namely its small relative brain size, long and massive limbs relative to overall body size, a convex region between the eye sockets, and well-developed third premolar teeth in both jaws. He also notes that Titanotylopus sported a proportionally shorter snout than the more common paleo-camelid, Camelops sp.

An adult Titanotylopus bonds (presumably) with her offspring.

An adult Titanotylopus bonds (presumably) with her offspring.

Interestingly, relatively new evidence has been unearthed which suggests a strong degree of sexual dimorphism within the genus. For this, I turn once again to Lange who writes:
“One amazingly large collection of bones has been recovered from the late Pliocene (3.5 million years old) lakebed site at Lisco, Nebraska. The more than seventy individuals that researchers have recovered from the Western Nebraska site show that adult males were about 20 per cent taller and considerably heavier than adult females. Males [also] had a pair of huge canine teeth that researchers think the animals used against other males during the breeding season.”
May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!
 
NEXT WEEK:Since I’ll have a wee bit longer to work on my oft-neglected blog, I’m hoping to feature Embolotherium, as promised.
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4 responses

16 07 2009
Zach Miller

Sheesh–makes the bactarians we have at the Alaska zoo seem tiny. Did prehistoric camels have humps, or is that a feature unique to the modern species? I suppose that’s not even something that would fossilize, or even has osteological correlates.

17 07 2009
Michael Ogden Erickson

Yeah, Zach – I’ve always wondered that too.

17 07 2009
tanystropheus

I’ve never heard of any direct evidence regarding the existence of humps on paleo-camelids, but it would certainly seem likely, given their presence in many modern forms.

28 02 2010
Weekly Spotlight: Capricamelus « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] are a surprisingly diverse lot, but can nevertheless be osteologically united chiefly by the following […]

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