young wild Bactrian camel
Bactrian camels are hairy double humped animals. Found primarily in Central and East Asia, they are adapted for cold regions and have reddish brown or black hair and have relatively thin, short legs, and heavy bodies. Their calloused feet can handle ice, rocks and snow. They can drink salt water and swim for short distances. Their hair may reach a length of foot in winter. Wild Bactrian camels are still found in China and Mongolia.

Dromedary or Arabian camels are short-haired single humped animals. Found primarily in Africa, the Middle East and West Asia, they are adapted for hot regions. Two to 3.4 meters in length and weighing 450 to 550 kilograms, they have long spindly legs and relatively thin bodies and soft padded feet adapted for walking in the desert. Most are light brown. There are snow white camels. Dromedary comes from the Greek word for "running." The term was first used to describe thoroughbred racing camels but later came to mean any one-humped camel. There are no wild dromedaries, although some have escaped and live as feral animals.

Dromedary and Bactrian camels can breed and produce fertile offspring. ,Bukht camels, a hybrid of dromedary and Bactrian camels, were bred especially for caravan work. Resembling dromedary camels with a saddle-like knot on their single hump, they originated around the 2nd century B.C. and endured until the 16th century, when the were made obsolete by sea routes. A few bukht camels can be found in Kazakhstan.

Sleek, white mughathir camels are regarded as the finest ones. Skewbald (brown-and-white) camels have blue eyes and are often deaf. They are said to have originated from Somalia.

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project ; International Dunhuang Project ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Works by Marco Polo ; Marco Polo and his Travels ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.

Camel Characteristics

In the dictionary camels are referred to as cud-chewing artiodactl mammals. Camels are cud chewers like ruminants such as cows and buffalo but lack the split hooves of most ruminants. A camel stomach has three compartments while that of a deer has four.

Camels have slobbery mouths, long teeth, and huge lips. They can bite quite effectively and blow bubbles of spit. Giraffes, camels and goats have long tongues and leathery mouth interiors that allow them to carefully select the shoots and leaves they want and eat them without injuring themselves. The tongues of horny male camels swell to twice their size and their mouths fill up with a foamy lather that looks like beer head.

Camels look moth-eaten when they molt in the spring. Dromedary camels can loose up to 40 percent of their body weight when water and food are scarce. They can raise their body temperature in hot conditions to reduce sweat and conserve water. They eat a wide variety of plants, including salty and thorny species. They sometimes scavenge from bones and dried out carcasses.

Bactrian Camels

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Bactrian camel
Bactrian camels are camels with two humps and two coats of hair. The long, woolly outer coat varies from brown to beige. The animals have a mane and beardlike hair on their throat. Their feet are broad and adapted for walking on sandy terrain and snow. Adults may exceed three meters in length, stand two meters at the top of the hump and weigh more than 700 kilograms.

Widely domesticated and capable of carrying 250 kilograms (600 pounds), they are native to Central Asia, where a few wild ones still live, and seem no worse for wear when temperatures drop to -29 degrees C (-20 degrees F). The fact they can endure extreme hot and cold and travel long periods of time without water has made them ideal caravan animals.

The humps store energy in the form of fat and can reach a height of half a meter (18 inches) and individually hold as much as 100 pounds. A camel can survive for weeks without food by drawing on the fat from the humps for energy. The humps shrink, go flaccid and droop when a camel doesn’t get enough to eat and the humps lose the fat that keeps them erect.

Bactrian camels move at about five kilometer per hour and produce five kilograms of wool, 600 liters of milk, and 250 kilograms of dung a year. In the winter they sometimes die because they are unable to scrape away snow from the grass and plants they eat. A Bactrian camel lived to be 36 in Britain. One of that age was still living in a Yokohama zoo in Japan in 2011. Females reach sexual maturity at three to four years, males at five to six years.

Camel Humps and Legs

Camels humps are filled with fat and muscle but no bone or free water. Their main purpose is to store fat as an energy reserve that sustains the animal when food and water isn't available. By concentrating fat in the hump rather than the body, the camel can expel body heat better through its body (there is no layer of fat to keep it inside). Most animals store their fat throughout their bodies.

The humps of Bactrian camels can reach a height of 18 inches and together hold as much as 90 kilograms (200 pounds) of fat and muscle. Camels can survive for weeks without food, drawing on the fat in their humps for energy. Erect humps are signs of well-fed animals. When the stored provisions are used up the hump sometimes shrinks down to a loose, floppy sack.

The humps acts also like a body cover that protect and shade the internal organs by slowing the conduction of heat. One hump is better than two at withstanding intense heat. Reuven Yagil wrote in Natural History magazine, "I have noticed that when the mass of fat heats up, the hump actually feels hot to the touch. The rest of the camel's body has very little insulating fat."

Camels have two large flexible toes on each foot instead of hooves. The toes are connected by skin so that when the animal walks their toes splay out and the webs keeps them from sinking in the sand. Beneath the toes are thick pads that offer protection from the heat. These soft padded feet are better adapted for traveling on sand than hard surfaces.

Camel Adaptions for the Desert, Heat and Lake of Water

Camels in Yarkand

Camels have dark eyes which are good for seeing in glaring sunshine. Their nostrils have small muscles that allow the animals to close them to small slits to keep out blowing sands. Their interlocking eyelashes also cut glare and keep out sand. They have thick coarse wool on their back which acts as insulation from the hot sun but have little hair on their undersides which allows them to give off excess heat. [Source: Reuven Yagil, Natural History, August 1993]

Camels are able to consume large amounts of water and store it. They converse water by storing it in their stomachs and holding it in their tissues and cells and recycling it over and over for weeks. Their feces are very dry. They recycle water (as opposed to urinating most of it) through their kidneys, stomachs and blood and have the ability to convert fat into liquid. Camels that have gone without water and recycled water for weeks can drink forty gallons and rehydrate their blood and kidneys in an hour.

If you touch a camel's inner nostrils they feel cool. Breathing helps cool a camel’s entire body and particularly helps keep the brain cool through a network of blood vessels that run between the brain and the nose.

The camel's large size is an advantage. A large object takes a long time to warm up plus it can create a lot of its own shade. Excluding the hump, there is very little insulating fat. Extra body heat is transferred to the environment through the legs and, like a jack rabbit, through the ears.

In the winter camels need to drink about once every two weeks. In the summer they need water about once every four days.

Camels and the Changing Body Temperature and Metabolism

Camels also conserve water by raising and lowering their body temperature. Unlike humans, who maintain a constant body temperature all the time, camels increase their temperatures slowly as the day warms up. As a result a camel does not loose much water whereas humans, who maintain a relatively low, constant body heat, lose a lot of water to evaporation. At night camels give off heat so their temperatures are low in the morning.

A camel's body temperature varies as much 6 degrees C, while a human's varies only 1 degrees C. In the night and early morning, the body temperature of a camel can drop to 93 degrees F and rise to 106 degrees F during the middle of the day.

Among all living things around 80 percent of the energy produced by the metabolism of food is released as heat. Most animals are taken to the limit of their survival capabilities by desert heat. A camel’s ability to raise and lower it metabolic rates helps it survive in hot weather and endure extreme variations in temperature. Camels have a slower metabolic rate in the summer than winter, the opposite of most mammals. With a lower metabolism, camels breath less and reduce the amount of water lost through respiration, helping them conserve water. Camels also collect salt in their kidneys like a dolphin. Dehydration also slows a reduction of the metabolic rate triggering a drop in thyroid function.

Camels have unusual blood. It has more water than the blood of other animals. Their oval-shaped red blood cells stay intact even when the amount of liquid in the blood is low. When the amount of liquid is reduced in the blood of other animals, the red blood cells shrivel, the blood stops flowing and transferring body heat and a lethal heatstroke occurs. By contrast, the blood of a camel that has lost a third of it body water keep flowing and dissipating heat.

Camel in Mongolia in the early 20th century

Camel Heat-Saving Behavior

To conserve water and battle the heat, camels stay in a recumbent position for long periods during the day, thus reducing the heat energy produced by muscle activity and food metabolism.

Camels sometimes urinate on their legs. As the urine evaporates, the blood vessels on their legs are cooled. Nasal secretions that drip between the nose and mouth also act as a coolant but have a relatively minor effect.

Groups of camels sit close together so they cool each with the shade created by their bodies. Each camel faces the sun in such a way that its hump absorbs the direct sunlight. Resting camels will reorient themselves throughout the day in relation to the sun.

Camels are light sleepers. When they sleep they lay on their stomachs with their legs folded under them. Sometimes the lie in nests they dig out of the sand. Their heads always face away from the wind. Sometimes they huddle together for protection from the wind.

Feeding Camels

Camels are cud-chewing ruminants with a hinged jaw and sharp teeth. Their mouth moves sideways when they eat. On the middle of their upper lip is a cleft like that on a rabbit. The two lip halves act like fingers to help the camel grasp and feel food. They sometimes kneel on their front legs when they drink or eat fodder.

When grazing, camels tend to prune rather than eat to ground level which allows the plants they eat to survive (goats on the other hand eat right down to the roots, often killing the plant). Camels wander for miles in search of food and don't kill all the vegetation in one area (unlike cattle which often gather and kill all the vegetation near wells).

Camels will eat almost anything. They can eat the thorniest of desert plants, chew tent cloth or their own saddles. An old mat or basket is considered a treat. When they forage the eat the long green thorn leaves from acacia trees, desert shrubs and dry grasses. They can subsist on thorny plants but a steady diet of that kind of food can damage their health.

Camels and Water

Tang camel with a rider

Camels can live longer than almost any other animal without food and water. They can easily go more than seven days in the summer without water and two weeks week in the winter without it, and can drink 70 liters at one time. In the winter camels can survive for more than 30 days on little water and little hay. In the winter camels need to drink about once every two weeks. In the summer it is about once every four days.

Describing some camels that went 14 days without water, Reuven Yagil wrote in Natural History, "Even though the camels had lost 50 gallons of body water each, they gazed into the distance, serenely chewing their cuds...The camels appeared or be unaffected by the heat."

Camels are usually taken to water at midmorning when the camels are most likely to drink large amounts of water. After a long period without water the camels bellow, burp, paw, slurp and growl loudly when they drink. When a large number of camels gather around a drinking hole, some drink while others patiently wait their turn. When a camel that hasn't had water for a long time finally drinks, it takes in only the amount of water that has been lost and does not drink extra and put that into storage.

Breeding Camels

Camels are generally slow reproducers, Females generally only give birth to one calf every two years. They are not ready to copulate until they are six years old and males have only a once-a-year rutting season. The gestation period of a Bacterin camel is 406 days and a around 11 months for dromedary camel. Most females give birth to a single calf

During the rutting season males give off an offensive odor. Since the Middle Ages, Arabs have used an IUD-like device (a small stone slid into the uterus) to prevent pregnancies in camels.

A camel calf stands about three feet tall when born. After about a day it can walk well enough to follow its mother to a foraging area.

About the only camels who seem able to express some tenderness are mothers with their calves. They constantly muzzle and nurse their young and seem genuinely contented whenever the are near them. The calf seeks shade under its mother in day and snuggles up to her for warmth at night.

Camel Meat and Products

Tang camel

Camels produces meat, milk, leather and wool. Because they reproduce slowly and have long gestation periods camels are not considered a good source of meat or milk. Goats and sheep are much more efficient protein providers.

Camel hair is used to make felt, brushes, and a variety of woolen products. The fine camel hair used for quality overcoats and suits comes from Bactrian camels. The finest quality hair is the short silky down that grows next to the skin. A camel also produces 500 pounds of camel dung fuel a year.

Camels are a valuable source of food when crops or food sources fail. I many places that rely on camels, camel meat is not normally eaten, but in cases of emergency or famine or when an animal dies suddenly they will be eaten. On long caravans that get into trouble camel meat has often meant the difference between life and death.

Muslims are specifically allowed to eat camel meat. Muslims have traditionally consumed camel milk and eaten the animals for emergency supplies of meat or when an animal dies. According to one Kenyan tribesmen camel meat tastes salty, sweet and soft like ibex, kudu, or wildebeest. Fat from the hump is used in place of butter.

Crippled camels and camels broken legs are slaughtered and eaten. Fouls given birth are sold if possible or sometimes killed. Describing the killing and slaughtering of a camel, Louis Werner wrote in Smithsonian magazine,"We arrived at the scene just in time to see the squatting camel pinned to ground with its neck pulled out taut by the rein and the knife make a 180-degree slash on its underside. The body strained backward, the eyes bulged and blood sprayed over the sand for yards. When the heart had pumped the body nearly dry, the skin was laid open on either side like a picnic cloth and four men undressed the corpse with flashing blades. The ring of onlookers shouted instructions, and finally such choice parts as the hump fat, chest callus, hoof jelly and liver emerged from the shrunken carcass. each of us had a share of the liver and hump, still hot and raw. Our drivers collected their quarter-side of camel and returned to the herd. [Source:Louis Werner, Smithsonian magazine, March 1987]

Camel Milk

Camel milk is more nutritious and stays longer than cow milk. High in protein and Vitamin C and low in cholesterol, it is sweet and has a cheesy flavor. Camel milk ice cream has been described as richer and sweeter than cow milk ice cream. Camel milk can be fermented because it has a high sugar content. Camel cheese is very bitter.

In desert areas camels often provide more milk than cattle. Nomads prize lactating camels. Female camels generally continue to produce 2½ gallons of milk a day in the wet season and around a gallon a day in the dry season for a year and half after they give birth (a cow by contrast only lactates for seven to nine months and gives between a pint and two quarts a day).

Even when water is scarce or brackish or there is a drought, camels continue to produce milk. Baby camels are often killed and their skins are hung to keep the she-camels producing milk.

Milk is taken from hobbled she-camels with a leather bowl. A camel's two teats must be milked at the same time or else one will retract out of reach. Describing the milking of a camel, Thomas Allen wrote in National Geographic: "She wrapped a rope around the camel's back legs and tightened the rope by bracing her knee against the camel's rump. She led a nursing camel up to the female and, as soon as the baby camel began nursing, yanked it away. The woman then began milking the camel, squirting the milk into a dirty tin can." Camel-udder covers prevent baby camels from nursing whenever they feel like it.

Image Sources: Silk Road Foundation; Shanghai Museum, CNTO, camel

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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