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Camel - Ata Allah, Ship of the Desert

Simply put, a Camel is one of two species of long legged hoofed mammals, with humps on their backs. They are one of the few large mammals suited to living in a desert climate, and the only one domesticated for use as transport by humans. They are capable of going for extended periods of time without food or water. The two species of camel, Bactrian Camels and Dromedary Camels are most easily differentiated by the number of humps on their backs, although there are other differences as well. It is rather easy to remember which is which. The Bactrian Camel will have two humps, which will look kind of like a capital letter B on its side, whereas the Dromedary Camel has a single hump, looking much like a capital letter D on its side. With long legs. And a head on a rather long neck. And hair. You get the idea though.

Contrary to popular belief, the Camel's hump is not used to store water. The Camel stores excess water directly in its bloodstream, in a manner unlike any other mammal. The humps are excess fat used as fuel when it cannot get enough food.


Kingdom:    Animalia 
Phylum:     Chordata
Class:      Mammalia
Order:      Artiodactyla
Suborder:   Tylopoda 
Family:     Camelidae 
Genus:      Camelus
Species:    Camelus bactrianus OR
            Camelus dromedarius

Physical Stats:
Mass               600 - 1000 kilograms
Length             3 meters
Shoulder Height:   Dromedary Camels: 180 - 210 centimetres
                   Bactrian slightly larger at 180 - 230 centimeters

Camels are extremely well suited to life in arid climates. The Dromedary Camel, also sometimes known as an Arab Camel, has been domesticated for over 5000 years, and there aren't any wild groups of Dromedary Camels left. As domesticated animals, however, they range throughout the north of Africa and all of the Middle East, as far north as parts of Russia and as far east as India. There is also a rather significant population of feral camels living in central Australia. Zoologists wishing to study the behaviour of Dromedary Camels in the "wild" use these groups of camels, totalling about 700,000 in total. They are doing well there, so much that the government there has decided to cull the population, because they hog resources needed by local sheep farmers.

Overall, it is estimated that there are about 13 million Dromedary Camels living today.

The Bactrian Camel, however, is not doing quite as well. While there are still a few groups of Bactrian Camels who still count as "wild", they number only an estimated 1000 camels. These are located mostly in parts of the Gobi Desert, in southern Mongolia, and packets in the north west of China. As for domesticated Bactrian Camels, it is estimated that there are about 1.2 million left worldwide, mostly concentrated in and around their natural range.


Physically speaking, the main difference between Dromedary Camels and Bactrian Camels, other than the hump thing, is their coat. Because they live in regions that actually have winters, during the cold seasons the Bactrian Camels will grow a long woolly coat, in various shades of brown. Once winter is over, however this coat is very rapidly shed, and they begin to more closely resemble their Dromedary cousins.

The Dromedary Camel's coat (and that of the Bactrian Camel in the summer) consists of two layers. First is a warm down coat, and then a rougher coat of long hairs. Being multipurpose, the coat is used to help shed heat during the day, and to help keep warm at night. They will also group together, keeping each other cool during the day, and warm at night.

This is made easier by camels' rather impressive tolerance for temperature variances. They do not start sweating until their internal body temperature reaches 42 °C, and their body heating doesn't start up until their hit 34 °C. By comparison, if a human's body temperature reaches 42 °C, the brain's cells will start to cook itself. 34 °C would be considered a case of hypothermia, although not likely life threatening.

The camel fur has been used by humans for millenia, with the soft down being collected and spun into yarn for knitting. It is supposedly rather similar to Cashmere wool.


The flexible internal thermostat of the camel is one method they use to save both energy and water. It is the saving of water that is the most remarkable. Camels, unlike every other mammal, can store excess fluid in its own blood stream, and utilize that water when needed. Whereas most animals will die if they are dehydrated to the point where they lose 20% of their body weight, the camel can lose up to 40% of their body weight in water without serious consequences. 40 freakin' percent. That's a whole lot of water loss, and the camel does so without significantly thickening their blood. The plasma of their blood will the last part that loses water.

In addition, they are able to extract every bit of moisture out of any desert plants they eat. And they are not too picky about what they eat, being able to consume pretty much any plant matter they come across, thanks to their thick tough leathery mouth and tongue, and strong teeth, allowing them to consume rather thorny plants other animals wouldn't be able to touch. Although, the bulk of their natural diet consists of leaves, grasses, and shrubs, with domesticated animals often being fed oats, dates, and wheat.

Because of these adaptations, camels are capable of going for up to a week at a time without actually drinking, and without this becoming a health concern. And when they do finally encounter water, oh boy, do they ever drink. Camels are able to tolerate brackish water that is would be undrinkable for other animals, most notably us. And they drink fast, having been known to drink up to 100 litres of water in one go.

Myself, I can't even drink two pints before I have to go to the washroom.


As mentioned above, a camel's hump is used to store FAT. Not water. Fat. In addition to getting in the way when a camel is trying to pass through the eye of a needle, the hump serves as a backup for the water in blood trick. After all we can't have the camel being able to go forever without water if it drops dead of starvation after a few days. After a long enough time without food, the hump will get softer, and even flop over on the side, as it becomes basically an empty sack of skin. A healthy camel will be able to quickly regain that fat when it reaches a good spot for grazing.

Their eyes are protected from sand by a double row of long eyelashes, as well as a pair of thick bushy eyebrows. Should sand get in their eyes anyways, which let's face it, is going to happen, camels have more tear glands than most mammals, to clear it out. As well, their noses can be protected from sand and dust by simply closing their nostrils, by contracting some muscles surrounding them. Now that's cool. Their hearing is rather acute, and protected by fur lined ears. Their two toes are insulted from the heat of the sand they often walk upon, and spread out a great deal to distribute their weight more evenly.

All this stuff combined pretty much makes them the ultimate desert animal. They are perfectly suited for life in North Africa. Which makes it kind of surprising that fossil evidence indicates that they originally came from North America, via the Bering Land Bridge, over 40 million years ago. In South America, they left behind their cousins in the family Tylopoda, which includes Llamas and Alpacas. In recent years, efforts have been made to crossbreed Camels, and the other members of the Tylopoda family. This cross is called a Cama.

Camels will live up to 40 years on average. They reach maturity at 5 years of age, keeping with their mother until that time. The gestation period of a camel is an impressive 13 months, with the cow rarely giving birth to more than a single calf. In the wild, herds of cattle will be led by a single male camel, and generally consist of about 40 other cows and calfs. Males not lucky enough to lead a herd lead a quiet life of solitude.


Camels have a reputation for having a bad attitude. Some of my sources claim that this attitude is undeserved, but the fact remains that if they are annoyed, camels will expel bile at you. I'd rather avoid camel bile myself. It is this reason that led the short lived US Camel Corps experiment to be cancelled. That having been said, for use in arid climates, camels are unsurpassed. They make an excellent pack animal, capable of carrying up to 250 kilograms, for 50 kilometers a day.

Camel milk is healthier than cow milk, containing not as much fat, and more vitamins. It is traditionally drunk fresh and warm, pretty much straight from the camel. What am I saying, of course it's drunk warm. How would they cool it down? As well, their fur is used in everything from clothing to the manufacture of tents, and camel leather is quite strong. As well, their dung is dry, and flammable. Quite useful for throwing on the fire to keep warm on a cold desert night.

Camels have, for most of human history, been vital to the survival of humans in the desert. This is becoming less of a factor as time goes on, and people of the area obtain increased access to modern technology. Now a days, and likely in the future, the use of camels is increasingly focused towards the tourist trade, and racing. But, one needs only to look at the Bedouin of the Middle East, whose entire way of life revolved around camels, to realize what an impact camels have had upon human history. I have no doubt that without camels, many parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East would be uninhabited to this day. You certainly wouldn't want your camel to wander off.


Fun Fact! In Germany, an insult for dull-witted people is to call them a Kamel. Because, let's face it, Camels look rather stupid. Still, being called one might be enough to put me over the edge.

Sources:
Nature.ca. "Camel," Homepage of the Canadian Museum of Nature. <www.nature.ca/notebooks/english/camel.htm> (October 12, 2005.)
Catherine C. Harris. "Egypt: Creature of the Desert, Camel," Tour Egypt Travel, Tours, Vacations, Ancient Egypt, History and shopping. <www.touregypt.net/featurestories/camel.htm> (October 14, 2005.)
Brent Huffman. "Dromedary, Arabian camel," The Ultimate Ungulate Page. March 22, 2004. <www.ultimateungulate.com/Artiodactyla/Camelus_dromedarius.html> (October 12, 2005.)
Brent Huffman. "Bactrian camel," The Ultimate Ungulate Page. March 22, 2004. <www.ultimateungulate.com/Artiodactyla/Camelus_bactrianus.html> (October 12, 2005.)
ThinkQuest team 26634. "Ship of the Desert," ThinkQuest : Library. 1999. <library.thinkquest.org/26634/text/desert/camel.htm;gt (October 12, 2005.)
Wikipedia. "Camel," Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camel> (October 12, 2005.)
Wikipedia. "Hyperthermia," Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperthermia> (October 14, 2005.)
EnchantedLearning.com "Camel Printout," EnchantedLearning.com <www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/mammals/camel/Camelcoloring.shtml> (October 12, 2005.)
Paul Massicot, "Wild Bactrian Camel," Animal Info. January 12, 2005. <www.animalinfo.org/species/artiperi/camebact.htm> (October 12, 2005.)
ArabNet. "The A-Z of CAMELS," [ arab net ] - :: Always Leading The Way :: - 2002. <www.arab.net/camels> (October 12, 2005.)
Oakland Zoo. "Africa: Dromedary Camel," WELCOME TO OAKLAND ZOO. 2003. <www.oaklandzoo.org/atoz/azcamel.html*gt; (October 14, 2005.)