When properly rested and watered, a camel can easily survive a journey without water for three days, and in cool weather it can live without water for as long as a month by feeding on succulent vegetation. Contrary to popular belief, however, the camel goes without water only when forced to do so or if its food contains sufficient water for its needs.
It was once believed that the camel stored water in the hump and drew upon its store when it could not obtain water to drink. Although some water is obtained when fat stored in the hump is used as food, water itself is not stored there. Actually the camel’s ability to go for long periods without water is largely due to three unusual means of adaptation that it possesses.
First, if a camel is forced to go without water, it conserves water by excreting less water in its urine.
Second, most other mammals cannot function well if their body temperatures rise much higher than 100° Fahrenheit. Their temperatures are kept from rising too high by perspiration and by the evaporation of water through air exhaled from the lungs. This cooling process causes the loss of relatively large amounts of water from the body. The camel, however, has a wide range of normal body temperatures and does not begin to sweat freely until its body temperature reaches 105° Fahrenheit. As a result, the camel is able to conserve much water on long desert trips.
Third, when most mammals are forced to go without water, their blood gradually becomes thicker as a result of losing water through perspiration. When the blood becomes so thick that no more water is available for perspiration, fatal overheating may result.
In the camel, however, much of the water lost from the blood is replaced by water drawn from other body tissues. As a result, the normal blood volume can be maintained and the cooling process can continue to function much longer. A man would probably die if he lost water amounting to 12 percent of his body weight, but a camel may survive the loss of water amounting to more than 25 percent of its weight.
The dromedary had been domesticated on the borders of Arabia by 1800 B.C., a fact confirmed by the finding of Middle Bronze Age remains of camels at ancient urban sites in Israel. Dromedaries were subsequently introduced to North Africa, the Nile Valley, and the Middle East as far as northwestern India. They appeared in the Roman arenas about 29 B.C. and were later used in chariot races. In modern times 20 of the animals were imported into Australia as carriers for the ill-fated Burke-Wills expedition which crossed the Australian continent in 1860-1861, and the descendants of these camels still live there. Dromedaries were also used in the United States after the Mexican War of the 1840’s, on mail and express routes across the newly acquired arid regions, but they were later killed.
Less is known of the history of the Bactrian camel. Remains found at Shah Tepe in Iran and at Anau in Turkestan, dating from about 3000 B. C., have been tentatively assigned to this species. It probably had a wide distribution as a wild animal in central and northwestern Asia in prehistoric times. By the 6th century B.C., Bactrians were domesticated in Persia.
Camels have often been used militarily. For example, a military camel corps was formed for the Gordon relief expedition of 1884-1885, and the French Saharan Camel Corps was largely responsible for the pacification of Algeria during the 19th century. About 3 million camels were used in World war I, and 50,000 in World War II.
Camels are still of great importance in desert countries as beasts of burden. A dromedary can carry 600 pounds for 30 miles in a day, and a bactrian can carry up to 1,000 pounds.
Camel hair is used for making clothes, tents, and carpets. The milk is nutritious, the flesh tastes somewhat like beef, and the liver is considered a delicacy.
Arabian camels can carry loads of 400 to 600 pounds across the desert, and bactrians can carry up to 800 pounds. Caravans consisting of 50 or more camels tied head to tail and led by an unburdened donkey usually travel at a rate of 2 to 4 miles (3.2 to 6.4 km) per hour, stopping to rest at waterholes.
Attribution: By American Colony Jerusalem (Library of Congress) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Because of their height, camels must usually kneel to be loaded or mounted. Unlike many domestic animals, camels resist being loaded by snapping, hissing, kicking, swaying from side to side to shake off the load, spitting, bleating, whining, and sobbing. Once loaded, however, most camels bear their burden dutifully, without causing any disturbance.
Since World War II and the introduction of motor trucks, the use of camels as beasts of burden has declined rapidly. Camels are now valuable chiefly for the products they yield. Camel meat and milk are important foods in North Africa and in Asia. Camel hide is used to make sandals, jugs, and other containers, while the hair is used in rugs, tents, and clothing. The dried bones are often used in decorative art as a substitute for ivory, and the dung is used as fuel.
Attribution: By ACEI Cheung (4Cheungs) from Flickr (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Camels are usually bred during the damp seasons. The females generally bear only one colt, or calf, at a time. Arabian camels deliver about 315 days after mating, and bactrians give birth in about 385 days. Colts weigh about 30 pounds (13 kg) at birth and are born with their eyes wide open and with a coat of hair. The young mature in about 5 years and may live up to 40 years.
Every school child learns about the two kinds of camels: one hump or two? That may not be possible in the future. The two-humped kind – the Bactrian camel – is classified as ‘critically endangered’, as a consequence of threats to its habitat on several fronts. Only a thousand individuals remain in their natural habitat in Asia and there is a chance that the wild Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) may be extinct within fifty years. All camels are thought to descend from an animal very like the wild Bactrian; even the one-humped dromedary has two humps in the embryonic stages of development.
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The Bactrian camel now only survives in the wild in the vast Gobi Desert, and in only four regions: three in China and one in Mongolia. The principal area it has survived in is the Gashun Gobi, an area of desert that was used by the Chinese from 1955 to 1996 as its nuclear testing range. Today the area is the Arjin Sha Lop Nur Nature Sanctuary, proclaimed specifically with camel protection in mind.
The wild Bactrian camel is uniquely adapted to the extreme arid conditions of the desert Gobi Desert, which averages less than 4 inches (100mm) rainfall per year. It is also resistant to freezing winter temperatures. Unlike domesticated Bactrian camels it has evolved the ability to drink salt water, and even salty slush when the oases are mere puddles. Despite this adaptability, its numbers are critically low. For animals already adapted to living in marginal areas such as deserts, global warming may be the last nail in the coffin. A longstanding drought in the Gobi has even further reduced the availability of water, while predators such as wolves congregate at the remaining oases, altering natural systems and patterns of predation.
Ironically, the use of one of their natural habitats as a no-access missile-testing zone may have protected the Bactrian camel, which was already thought to have become extinct in the wild many years ago. Astonishingly, exposure to radiation does not seem to have affected them or their breeding. (Other creatures have perhaps not been so lucky.) However, hunting for food and sport, and habitat loss as land is turned over to support farm animals, has contributed to the continuing decline of an animal already on the edge.
The unique adaptations of the Bactrian camel make it especially interesting for genetic studies, encouraged by the Wild Camel Protection Foundation. These camels have an extremely effective immune system and disease resistance, partly due to uniquely tiny antibodies. Genetic and immunological research may help in the development of new drugs for human and animal diseases.
With captive breeding programmed and state protection, there may be some hope for the Bactrian camel. There are fears that the population numbers may already have reached a critical low, a point beyond which recovery is not possible. In the meantime scientists, activists and the governments of both China and Mongolia are working to save it from extinction.
The Arabian camel stands about 6 feet tall at the shoulders and about 7 feet tall at the top of its hump. Its body is large and has little fatty tissue, other than that concentrated in the hump. It has a long curved neck and long thin legs with thickly padded, knobby knees. The bactrian camel is more sturdily built than the Arabian. Bactrians can carry heavier loads than Arabian camels, but Arabian camels are much faster. Some dromedaries can keep up a pace of 10 miles per hour all day. Dromedaries were used for raiding by the Arabs and in the cavalry corps by the British, Indian, and Egyptian military forces.
The thick coat of the camel, which is either sandy-white, yellow-brown, or deep brown, provides insulation against extremes of heat and cold. The coat of the bactrian camel is much thicker than that of the Arabian and is quite shaggy on the humps and neck.
The camel’s face has been described as both haughty and stupid-looking. The ears are small, the nose arched, the eyes large and heavily lidded, the mouth wide and thick-lipped, and the lower jaw slightly receded. Despite its lack of beauty, however, the face is well adapted to life on the desert. Double rows of thick eyelashes keep flying sand out of the eyes. Slitlike nostrils, heavily lined with hair, filter sand and dust out of the air as the camel breathes, and the nostrils can be almost completely closed during a sandstorm.
The splayed feet of the camel are divided into two large toes, each of which has a small nail. The bottoms of the feet are protected by thick leathery cushions, rather than by the horny material typical of hooved mammals. The padding of the Arabian camel’s foot is quite flexible, allowing the foot to spread over soft sand, instead of sinking into it.
Unlike most other animals, camels walk with a pacing gait. The front and hind legs on the same side of the body are moved forward at the same time, resulting in a side-to-side pitch of the animal’s body as it moves forward. This swaying motion is probably responsible for its popular name, “the ship of the desert”.
The camel eats grass and other vegetation. Its stomach is composed of three chambers, the first of which is lined with special pouches that hold partially chewed food, which is returned to the mouth as the cud. Unlike most other ruminants, or cud-chewing animals, camels have front teeth, instead of hard gums in the upper jaw, and they sweep their cud across these teeth.
The most distinctive physical feature of the camel is its hump or humps. The hump is composed of connective tissue overlying the backbone. When the animal has eaten, most of the fats that it has absorbed or converted during the digestive process are stored in the hump, making it large and firm. A camel may store up to 80 pounds in its hump or humps, and when little food is available on a long journey, the animal utilizes its stored food. As the fat is used for nourishment, the hump shrinks and becomes flabby.