There are two species of Camel, the Dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) and the Bactrian (Camelus bactrianus). Dromedary camels have one hump and were domesticated some 4,000 years ago. There are no Dromedaries left in the wild. There is a large population (perhaps more than 600,000) of Dromedaries living in the Australian outback, but they are a feral population. Bactrian camels have two humps. Although most of their numbers are domesticated, they still have a small wild representation. Wild Bactrian camels are critically endangered and a recent census put their count at a mere 900.
Dromedaries are native to the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. Their long association with humans has benefited both species. There are close to 14 million Dromedaries, many still being used to transport people and goods across inhospitable places. Where they were once an Arabian fixture (there are 160 words in Arabic for camel); they are now more prevalent in Somalia, Sudan, Kenya and other African nations. Dromedaries were integral in opening trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe. Muslim armies rode camels as they toppled the Byzantine and Persian Empires. For centuries, the Dromedary has supplied humans with its muscles, milk, hide and meat, making it possible for people to subsist, even to thrive, in desert wastelands.
Bactrian Camels are native to Asia, specifically the Gobi Desert. They are larger than Dromedaries and must withstand harsher climates. The Gobi Desert can be 121°F in the summer and -20°F in the winter. The domesticated Bactrian population numbers only about 2 million. Bactrian Camels were responsible for opening the silk trade routes from China and were used as beasts of burden in Southern Russia and Western Siberia. The two humps of a Bactrian weigh about 75 lbs each and form a natural saddle for a rider. The Bactrian camel grows a long shaggy coat during the frigid Gobi winter that peels away in sheets when spring comes.
The most recognizable physical characteristic of a camel is its hump. Contrary to myth, water is not stored there. A camel's hump is made up of fatty tissue that can be converted into energy and water when there is need. As the camel draws upon these energy reserves, the hump shrinks. If the fat deposits are truly depleted, the hump will flop over and hang down the camel's side. A week of food, water and rest will restore a camel's hump to its proper shape. Since a camel's fat is stored mainly in the hump, their body is not insulated and they are able to keep themselves cool in the heat of the desert. Another way Camels keep cool is by fluctuating their core body temperature as much as 10°F. If a human's body temperature raises a mere 2°F it is a sign of illness, 6°F and we will die. It may be odd to see camels clustered together during the hottest part of the day, but since their body temperatures are lower than the surrounding air, they are actually helping to keep each other cool.
Whether one-humped or two, Camels have unique adaptations that make it possible for them to live in harsh climates. Their eyes are large and protected from wind and sand by double layers of long lashes. Their brow ridge and eyebrows are prominent, providing a boney "visor" that shields the eye from the sun. Camels also have a third eyelid that moves sideways, front to back, and acts like a windshield wiper, brushing the eye clean of sand. Even when this eyelid is closed, the camel can still see, allowing them to continue to travel in blinding sandstorms. The camel's ears and nose are lined with hair for protection from dust and sand. The camel's nose is also designed to trap moisture from its exhalations, thereby conserving body fluids. A camel's long legs keep the bulk of its body high above the reflective heat of the desert sand. Thick calloused skin on the camel's knees and chest are contact points with the hot sand. These hairless areas develop on camels when they are about 5 months of age and protect them when they are lying down and resting and also provide cushioning for when they rise.
A camel is a cud-chewer and vegetarian, preferring dates, grass and grain, but when food is scarce, it becomes an omnivore, making a meal out of anything it can find, including thorns, bones, meat and even its owners tent. Camels need salt in their diet and can drink brackish water that would make other animals ill. The camel's mouth is tough-skinned and has a split lip, allowing it to strip even the thorniest trees of vegetation. They possess very sharp teeth which are used not just to feed, but to defend itself. In the summer, camels can go 5 – 7 days without food or water. In the winter, a camel can extract enough moisture from its food to go 50 days without water. A thirsty camel can drink up to 30 gallons of water in less than 15 minutes. Any other mammal would suffer water intoxication and probably die. A camel's feet are two-toed, broad and flat with a pad of fat at its heel. Under the camel's weight, this fat pad spreads out, like a snowshoe, keeping the camel from sinking into the sand.
Camels are very strong and can carry loads weighing more than 900 pounds although it is more typical for them to carry no more than 450 pounds. Working, or baggage, camels generally cover 25 miles in a day, traveling at 3mph. A riding camel can travel 80 to 120 miles in a day. Camels prefer to walk, especially when it is very hot, but they can gallop when required and have a middle gait called a pace. This middle gait has the camel moving both legs on one side of its body at the same time. This produces an extreme rocking motion, which, for the uninitiated, can cause feelings of seasickness. This is how the camel got its nickname, "Ship of the Desert."
Camels are intelligent and possess good eyesight and wonderful hearing. They tend to be patient and docile when treated well, but will also let you know if they feel abused. Camels are vocal and freely grunt, moan, bellow and roar. A camel will live 40 – 50 years but is retired from work by age 25. Also, camels do not work all year; it is too strenuous on their bodies. After working 6 – 8 months (depending on service) a camel will be rested. Camels breed in the spring and after a gestation period of 13 months, the female will give birth to one calf (twins are rare). Mother and calf will stay together for several years. When a camel is 5 years old it will be completely trained and able to carry a full load.
Fun Camel Facts
- Want to remember the difference between Dromedaries and Bactrians? Take the first letter in their names and drop it onto its flat side. The "D" in Dromedary has only one hump. The "B" in Bactrian has two humps.
- Camels have a reputation for spitting but they don't, it would be a waste of water. What they are actually doing is vomiting on you.
- A camel's poop is so dry you can use it immediately to start a fire.
- Camel blood cells are oval in shape, allowing them to continue to circulate even when the camel's blood has lost 40% of its water content.
- Baby camels are born without a hump. They won't develop one until they start eating solid food.
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Camel Pictures and Facts
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