CHEYENNE — An oil company drilling in western Oklahoma has stumbled across a deposit of camel and horse fossils that date back roughly five million to 12 million years, scientists who've examined the remains say.
The fossils, which belong to long-extinct species of camel and horse, were found in July in the Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area.
An alert heavy-machine operator working for Apache Corp., the Houston-based oil company drilling in Packsaddle, discovered the long-hidden fossils after he'd cleared away roughly 20 feet of earth.
Some of the fossils are in good condition — relatively speaking — with the highlight being a well-preserved horse skull far tinier than its present-day descendant.
And there are plenty of fossils for scientists to work with in the isolated wildlife area. So far, a team of paleontologists and archaeologists has uncovered 13 separate pits containing deposits of bones of varying sizes.
Scientists say the remains are typical prey animals of the Late Miocene period, species that roamed what is now western Oklahoma in large numbers.
Nicholas Czaplewski, curator of vertebrate paleontology for Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, said it will take some time — possibly years — to sort through all of the fossils from the site.
At this point, it's not clear what exactly scientists will gain from studying the fossils, but Czaplewski said the remains eventually will be compared with “known species” that have been found in the region.
“We also hope to learn more about the anatomy of the animals if their remains are complete enough,” he said.
“For example, if we find teeth or skulls associated with other parts of the skeleton like leg and foot bones, then we can build a more complete knowledge of the animals than when we only find isolated fragments, as is more usual.”
More study needed
The fossils were found in a section of the Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area that lies just north of the Canadian River in Ellis County. The terrain surrounding the dig site is covered in sage brush, windblown sand dunes and seemingly random, scrubby hillsides.