The Idiots Guide to Everything: Camels

Posted on March 2, 2013


One lonely beast.


The camel is a strange beast. When I was young, I was aware of them, as we all are, but they sort of existed outside the big mammal spectrum, less prominent than say elephants, rhinos, giraffes or hippos. This isn’t to say the camel was less interesting, its just that as a child it wasn’t brought up much in school. It was cool seeing them at zoos, but you never lingered too long. Besides, they are grumpy and spit all the time right? As with most things, you learn more as you get older, and so it was with the camel. Needless to say, I was wrong to be so dismissive about these often misunderstood workhorses. Let’s learn more.

 There are only two true species of camel left in the entire world. The overwhelming majority of these are the iconic one humped Dromedary camels, with the rest being the Bactrian with their two humps. Both are widely domesticated, with 90% of all camels worldwide being so. In fact, all dromedary camels are domesticated, and the only native wild camels are the Bactrians found in the Gobi Desert. There are large numbers of wild camels found in Australia, where they were introduced in 1840 to help build Australia, but more on that later. Camels surprisingly originated in North America, some 40 or 50 million years ago, the first of which was called Protylopus and was about the size of a rabbit. From here they slowly made their way across the world, meeting man for the first time in the Middle East and Africa, where the domestication would begin. Man would go on to use these animals for many reasons, as camels provided a huge variety of uses. They have an ability to travel great distances across hot, dry climates with little need for constant water intake. They also provide milk, meat, hair and labour. Indeed, the word ‘camel’ is thought to have come from the Hebrew word ‘gamal’, which possibly means ‘to carry’. Camels would go on to also provide military use between 500 and 100 BC, primarily because the horse has a fear of the camel’s scent. Who knew.

The life expectancy of the camel is between 40 and 50 years. The average cow will produce 8 calves in her lifetime, going through a pregnancy that lasts between 374 and 419 days. Full grown, an adult calf is 6 foot 1 at the shoulder, and 7 foot 1 at the hump. Ah yes, the iconic hump. The hump that Rudyard Kipling described as an ‘ugly lump’. The elephant has its trunk, the rhino has its horn, the giraffe has its neck and the camel has its hump. For years there were many myths about what purpose the hump provided, the most frequently heard of these being that it contained an excess water supply. It has since been discovered that the hump is just fatty tissue, acting like a backpack of energy. By concentrating all of the animals fat in one place, it helps to lose heat across the rest of the body protecting vital organs in the process. This is completely necessary in order to keep the camel cool, living as it does in such intense heat. So no water at all, just fat and energy. You can tell if a camel is starving by the hump, as a starving camel will have a shrunken deformed hump, which will right itself when the animal is sated.

So how does the camel survive such intense heat on infrequent water and food intake? Well, it would seem that the camel has evolved perfectly for the conditions it finds itself in. For instance, its cheeks are built for retention of food, allowing constant chewing and regurgitation in order to get every possible nutrient out of the snack. It also has the ability to eat plants that are indigestable to most animals, meaning it is far from a picky eater. I would be a pathetic camel, that be true. The digestion system of the camel is wonderfully put together, the food it stores in its tum tum is turned into vital water. It also has little glandular sacks that rebsorb moisture and extract water from the digesting the camel undertakes. The camel is a recycling machine.

It also helps that the camel doesn’t sweat too much. The body temperature of a camel varies through a range that would kill most other animals, and there isn’t any sweating until it reaches the very peak of this. Even then, the sweat evaporates at skin level rather than the coat. The thick coat of the camel also helps insulate it from the intense heat of the desert. The coat lightens in the summer in order to reflect light and avoid sunburn. Again, I would be a pathetic camel. The anti-desert mechanisms continue with their long eyelashes, intense ear hair and nostrils with the ability to close, all of which protect the camel against sand. The camel is able to keep its sensitive brain by cooling the blood whilst breathing in. The cool blood intercepts the warm blood, chilling it before it reaches the brain. The hot air is expelled nasally. Whilst exhaling, water vapour is retained in the nostrils to conserve water. A RECYCLING MACHINE. The camel also has very little need for toilet time. It has a very small bladder for an animal of its size, smaller even than that of a human being. This means it pees very little, and when it does it is thicker than the urine of most animals. The faeces of the camel is also ridiculously dry, so dry in fact that it is often used as fuel. Pouel.

So now we know that the hump of a camel contains fat and not water, they have syrupy wee and are mostly domesticated. By far the largest number of wild camels are found in Australia, as previously mentioned. What in the Sam hell are camels doing in Australia I hear thee cry? Well, as noted, they are incredibly useful labour animals, and in the time before motor vehicles took over they were used to build Australia. They were used for exploration and station work in the extremely arid interior of the continent. The working camels that were bred over there were to be of far superior quality to the imports, and this led to massive population expansion. The imports stopped in 1907, and motorised transport would end the need to use them for labour. The Australians, in a moment of misguided kindness, decided to expel the camels en-masse into the wild. This kind gesture would lead to camel numbers growing hugely, and other species would struggle to compete. As of 2010 there were thought to be around 700,000 wild camels in Australia, out of a worldwide population of 14 million. Their numbers in Australia rise at around 8% every year, and the government has taken the decision to cull the beasts, in order to quell their numbers. All of this of course, because the camel has evolved to be perfectly suited to the climate of Australia’s centre. I can’t think of a more perfect animal and country mix.

So there you have it. Never again will I underestimate the awesomeness of the humped beast.