Camels are one of the most useful animals to humans. Particularly in the desert areas of the Middle East and the steppes of Central Asia, they are used primarily as pack animals but also are useful as mounts and as sources of milk, meat and wool. Bactrian camels were commonly used on the Silk Road to carry goods. They could be employed in high mountains, cold steppes and inhospitable deserts.
Camels are mentioned in the Koran and regarded by Bedouins as “God’s gift.” In the desert some people worry more about the well-being of their camels than they do of their own children. But camels are not necessarily pleasant animals. They make screechy noises, have smelly bodies and always seem to be dozing off or refusing to cooperate but are the fastest animals in the desert and steppes, and have incredible endurance.
Male camels are often castrated. White camels are regarded as auspicious. There are fewer camels than there used to be. Sometimes they are eaten for meat. Mostly they are not as useful as they once were. Truck now carry tents, goods and products that used to carried by camels.
Types of Camels
Bactrians 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. 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." It 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 not 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.
History of Camels
The first camels lived in North America millions of years ago. They seemed to have evolved from small rabbit-size creatures that first appeared around 40 to 50 million years ago. Camels migrated to Asia across the Bering Strait about three million years ago and evolved into the creatures we know today. Camels in North America died out but not before giving rise to camel-like alpacas, guanacos, llamas and vicuñas
All camels are believed to have evolved from two-humped bactrian camels indigenous to Central Asia. The one-humped dromedaries of the Middle East are believed to have evolved from them although their origin is still somewhat of a mystery. The Bactrian camel is believed to have been domesticated in Central Asia 5,000 years ago. The Dromedary camel is believed to have been domesticated in Arabia 5,000 years ago. They may have been first been raised for milking purposes. Small clay figurines of camels from North Yemen, dated to 1000 B.C. are some of earliest depictions of the animals. Bas reliefs from 650 B.C. show Assyrian archers shooting at Arabs from the back of a camel. Camels came to Africa from Asia about 500 B.C.
Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Domesticated as long ago as the fourth millennium B.C., by the first millennium B.C. camels were prominently depicted on Assyrian and Achaemenid Persian carved reliefs and figured in Biblical texts as indicators of wealth. Among the most famous depictions are those in the ruins of Persepolis, where both of the main camel species — the one-humped dromedary of Western Asia and the two-humped Bactrian of Eastern Asia — are represented in the processions of those bearing tribute to the Persian king. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]
“In China awareness of the value of the camel was heightened by the interactions between the Han and the Xiongnu toward the end of the first millennium B.C. when camels were listed among the animals taken captive on military campaigns or sent as diplomatic gifts or objects of trade in exchange for Chinese silk. Campaigns of the Chinese army to the north and west against the nomads invariably required support by large trains of camels to carry supplies. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE, the success of Arab armies in rapidly carving out an empire in the Middle East was due to a considerable degree to their use of camels as cavalry mounts. *\
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 four.
Camels have slobbery mouthes, long teeth, and huge lips. The can bite quite effectively and blow bubbled 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.
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 45 kilograms (100 pounds). The camels can survive for weeks without food, drawing on the fat from the humps for energy. When the stored provisions are used the hump shrinks sometimes 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 humps is better than two at withstanding the intense heat. Reuven Yagil wrote in Natural History magazine, "I have noticed that 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 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 insulatio from the hot sun but have little hair on their undesides 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 feces. They recycle water (as opposed to urinating it) through their kidneys, stomachs and blood and have the abilty to covert fat into liquid. Camel that has gone without water and recycled water for weeks can drink forty gallons and rehydrate its 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 runs 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 people, 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 body heat, loses 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 6̊C, while a human varies only 1̊C. In the night and early morning, the body temperature of a camel can drop to 93̊F and rise to 106̊F 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 in 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 and the oval-shaped red blood 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 Heating-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 its legs are cooled. Nasal secretion 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 faces away from the wind. Sometimes they huddle together for protection from the wind.
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 the drink or eat fodder. See Cattle
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 in 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
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 a camel 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 take in only the amount of water that has been lost and does not drink extra and put to on to storage.
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 used an IUD-like device (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.
Image Sources: Silk Road Foundation; Shanghai Museum, CNTO, camel photos.com
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 March 2022