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.
The Black Kettle National Grassland is just to the south of Packsaddle. This part of Oklahoma is vastly different from the heavily wooded, lush terrains of the southeastern parts of the state.
Millions of years ago, it would not have been unusual to see a camel walking through what is now Oklahoma.
In fact, scientists working at the site said that camels — now associated with the vast deserts of what is now the Middle East — may have originated in North America.
But as to why so many sets of fossils were found clustered together at the Packsaddle site, theories abound among the scientists.
Kyle Davies, a paleontologist working at the site, said he believed it was possible a large flooding event may have trapped many of the animals at the same time. He said such an event could explain why the fossils — many of them articulated — are in such good condition.
During an interview at the dig site Aug. 18, Czaplewski was hesitant to offer an opinion about the relatively large number of fossils that had been uncovered so far.
“As far as why they are clustered ... it will take time to study what contextual evidence is preserved with the fossils,” he said.
“It is possible that they died in the same area but separately from one another over long periods of time, because it had been a waterhole where they came to drink over many generations.”
After the discovery of the 13 sets of fossils, a representative from Apache Corp. indicated that the company would clear more earth away to see whether more remains can be located.
Could a rarer find — something like a saber-toothed cat that would have hunted the camels and horses uncovered by the oil company machine operator — present itself to scientists as they continue to work?
“It's unlikely,” Czaplewski said at the dig site. “I mean, people say we have mountain lions here in Oklahoma now ... but how often do you see them?
“How often do you find their bones lying around?”