Featured Fossil: Megatylopus matthewi

By Megan Higbee Hendrickson

Editor’s note: Megan teaches earth science and biology to sixth and seventh graders at the Academy of Holy Names in Tampa, Florida. She is a participant in the 2014 cohort of the GABI RET (Great American Biotic Interchange Research Expeience for Teachers). Megan has been a classroom teacher for 10 years. Prior to GABI, she was a research assistant in the Bahamas for a coastal ecology and near shore reef research project. Geology and paleontology are new interests for her.

After looking for fossils in Panama this summer with the GABI RET team, I was excited to get out into the field again, which we did on our wrap-up trip to New Mexico. (It was only on our last day of fielding in Panama that I felt like I finally had the hang of looking for fossils.) As we arrived to our location north of Santa Fe, Dr. Bruce MacFadden looked around the area and quickly realized that the quarry we were looking for was a short hike over the next ridge. The landscape of our field locality was beautiful; I happily trotted alongside Bruce and the other teachers stopping to snap pictures of the landforms I had recently been studying with my students in Tampa, Florida. (I was thrilled to have my picture taken while sitting on a hoodoo after having to convince my students that they did, in fact, exist despite the silly name.)

Megan on the hoodoo
Megan on the hoodoo

Little did I know that inspecting this hoodoo would lead to an exciting discovery. While walking near the base of the formation I noticed that there was part of a bone exposed in the dirt. I began to clear away the loose sand and quickly realized that I had found a fossil of some size. Upon closer inspection of the bone, I realized that the end of the bone was split in half, what appeared to be a softball size piece was missing. I glanced down the steep side of the hill I was working on and something caught my eye. Leaving the bone for a few minutes, I went down the hill and retrieved what turned out to be the end of the bone I had uncovered at the top of the hill. Placing the two pieces together and realizing I had a complete fossil was an indescribable feeling.

Very excited, I called Bruce over to identify what I had found. Almost immediately Gary Morgan (our other field leader both in NM and Panama) identified the bone as the metatarsal of a Megatylopus matthewi, or giant giraffe camel. Hearing the excitement over the fossil made me realize that I had found something very special. I worked to clear the area around the bone carefully and with Bruce’s help successfully made a plaster jacket. Working on excavating this fossil from beginning to end was a great learning experience. Although it was a simple excavation, understanding the process of collecting and protecting a fossil for transport is a topic my students ask about frequently, and one that I more fully understand now. I was happy to make the hike back to the vehicles with my find and eager to find out exactly what a giant giraffe camel looked like.

Finding the Megatylopus fossil was exhilarating and I was thrilled to have such an amazing experience to share with my students when I returned to the classroom. I have only been learning about paleontology since May. This find has me excited to learn more about what I found and continue to work in the field when I can. Bruce and Gary are have been wonderful mentors and the field experience I had in New Mexico brought a new level of motivation and excitement into the classroom when I returned.


Megan's find: fossilized metatarsal of a Megatylopus matthewi
Megan’s find: fossilized metatarsal of a Megatylopus matthewi
Megatylopus matthewi, or giant giraffe camel
Megatylopus matthewi, or giant giraffe camel

Megatylopus matthewi or “giant giraffe-camel”

by Bruce MacFadden

Megatylopus matthewi belonged to a group of camels that evolved in North America during the Miocene. Standing at least 12 feet tall, this giant “giraffe-camel” evolved characterisitcs that made them look like the giraffes of the Old World, despite the fact that the camels (Camelidae) and giraffes (Giraffidae) are different families of plant-eating, even-toed hoofed mammals (Artiodactyla). This dual similarity is an example of parallel evolution of similar characteristics in different groups. Megatylopus was widespread in North America, and its occurrence in New Mexico about 6 million years ago, although not unexpected, is nevertheless interesting. I was so excited that Megan made this discovery and the GABI RET teachers had the opportunity to share in the excitement. I am also glad that we were able to add important fossils to the research collections at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History.