Camels are fascinating creatures.
Originating in North America, camels crossed over the land bridge to Asia and onward, but were eventually wiped out in their native land by the migration of other species (including humans) in the opposite direction – entering North America. Camels may have been domesticated between 3,500-5,000 years ago and were mainly used for carrying people and loads long distances. Their fur can be used for clothing, bedding, and tent-covering. Camels have also been used for military purposes in “camel corps” in the US, France, Britain, Egypt, Romania, Western Sahara, and elsewhere. There is a feral population of about 700,000 camels that roam Australia, originally brought to the continent for use as transportation animals.
There are three surviving species of true camels – the Dromedary (aka Arabian; Camelus dromedarius), the Bactrian (Camelus bactrianus), and the Wild Bactrian (Camelus ferus).
The dromedary camel is by far the most common and makes up 94% of the world’s camel population. It is the one-humped variety found throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa. The bactrian camel is the two-humped type and is found in Central Asia, while the wild bactrian is critically endangered and lives in remote areas of China and Mongolia.
Camels and llamas can be bred to form a hybrid called a “cama.” This cama is sterile despite camels and llamas having the same number of chromosomes.
A camel can be pregnant from 9-14 months, depending on food availability. A newborn camel is able to run within hours of its birth. All three species of camels tend to live 40-50 years.
Camels possess a variety of impressive adaptations to living in one of the most unforgiving climates on Earth – the desert. To dispel a common myth, they do not store water in their humps. A camel’s hump is actually a fat reserve (up to 80lbs / 36kg) and the fat is broken down to provide energy when food is unavailable. There’s an additional benefit to the hump – keeping a majority of the camel’s fat in one place reduces the warming and insulating effects of a well-distributed layer of fat. Seals have a layer of blubber around them to keep them warm because they need it, most camels definitely do not.
Camels have a thick coat which ironically helps them keep cool. A camel that has been shaved has to sweat 50% more or it will overheat (so don’t shave your poor camel!). The fur also protects against sunburn. The common lying position that camels are often seen in is used for cooling as well. Propped up on its folded legs, the camel keeps most of its belly off of the hot sand and allows air to flow under the body, helping to keep it cool. The sternum is covered in a thick layer of skin which aids in supporting the camel in this position while protecting it from the sand.
As far as water is concerned, a camel can go as many as 100 miles (161 km) without needing to drink. As they dehydrate, their weight may be reduced by almost one third of their initial body weight. They have oval-shaped red blood cells which fit through dehydrated, constricted vessels more easily than the round ones that other mammals have. In addition they are about 30 times more efficient at preventing daily water loss as compared to other domesticated livestock animals. The urine of a camel is syrup-like (to conserve water) and their poo is so dry that it can be burned as a fuel without needing to dry it further. It is said that a camel can drink a third of its weight in water in three minutes, which is borderline insane. Almost equally as insane is the wild bactrian’s ability to survive by drinking salt water even saltier than seawater.
The two toes of a camel’s foot spread as the camel steps, preventing it from sinking into the sand and aiding the camel in reaching up to 40 miles per hour (65 km/h). Camels, giraffes, and cats are the three animals that step with both left feet, then both right feet, as opposed to the alternating gaits of all other four-legged animals.
Camel milk is an important source of nutrition for nomadic tribes and is sometimes believed to have medicinal properties dependent on the camel’s diet. Camel meat is also eaten and the hump is sometimes considered a delicacy. The blood is mixed with the milk as a beverage in some places as a source of iron and vitamin D. Camel meat and milk are considered halal (allowed) for consumption in Islam but are not considered kosher in Judaism.
Risks to Humans
Camels will spit if provoked, and can kick with any of their four legs. Cases of human bubonic plague have been reported from the consumption of raw camel liver.
Risks for Camels
As domesticated animals, dromedary and bactrian camel populations are safe for the near future. The wild bactrian camel is considered critically endangered as possibly fewer than one thousand are alive in the wild, and the population may see up to an 80% decline within the next three generations. Poaching is one of their main threats and others include land mines, lack of water, wolf attacks, pollution from illegal mining, and loss of habitat to industrial development and livestock grazing.
I feel as though I have left out so much; this is just a very basic overview. I’m not sure why I am recently so fascinated by camels, but after reading all this, aren’t you too? They’re pretty cool!