A tall desert-dwelling creature, the camel has become an icon of the Asian and African deserts. Generally the camel is a pleasant animal. If well treated, the domestic camel is very docile and easy to manage. If ill-treated, they can become very stubborn. Camels can easily be identified by the unique one or two humps on their back and their long necks.
When running, a camel can reach a speed up to 40 mph in short bursts, 25 mph for longer periods of time. Camels do not have hooves. The foot of a camel is made up of a large leathery pad, with two toes at the front, the bones of which are embedded in the foot. The padding makes the gait of a camel silent, and keeps it from sinking in the sand. The camel also has pads of thick leathery skin, on its leg joints, enabling it to kneel or lay in the hot sand. Similar to giraffes, camels move both legs together on each side of their body to walk.
As a domestic animal, the camel is used for milk, food and transportation. Camels can carry up to 200 lbs on their back for distances in the heat. Their dung is so dry that it can be used to fuel fires.
Diet and Habitat
Camels are herbivores, they most commonly eat grasses and desert plants, although there are stories of camels consuming tents and just about anything else around. The inside of their mouth is lined with very thick skin that allows them to chew up thorny plants that other animals cannot consume. They can reach trees and limbs that are up to 11' high. The stiff hair on their nose allows them to forage in prickly or thorny plants. The diet of a camel requires salt, so the salty plants that grown in salt lakes and other areas are part of their normal diet. Camels are ruminant feeders and do not chew when they eat their food, but later regurgitate the cud and finish digesting it later.
Behavior and Life Cycle
An adult camel reaches sexual maturity around the age of 2 to 3 years. They do not normally give birth prior to the age of 5 years. Once a cow starts breeding she will give birth to a calf about once every 2 to 3 years. The breeding is seasonal and occurs when daylight hours increase. The female cycle is about 27 days in length. Once pregnant, the duration of the pregnancy is about 12 to 12.5 months. Normally a single calf is born, but on rare occasion twins have been conceived. The calves are born with their eyes open and with a thick coat of fur. Their humps don’t develop until their diet changes from milk to solid food. The young stay with their mothers for several years, but in captivity they are normally weaned at 1 year.
Camels travel in herds or caravans containing mostly females and calves with one dominant male. The other bulls (males) will travel in bachelor herds. They will leave the herd to rut for about 2 to 4 months, breeding or dominating as many females as they can in their area. When resting, the camels in the herd will congregate closely to keep their temperatures lower.
The males (bulls) tend to become more aggressive during mating season. They will snap at each other and neck wrestle. When agitated a camel will spit regurgitated food at the agitator.
The average life span of a camel is 40 to 50 years.
Humans are the main predator of the camel population. Most camels, close to 90%, are domesticated. Other than humans, the only predator is the tiger.
A camel’s hump consists of fatty-tissue which minimizes heat-trapping insulation in the rest of their bodies, keeping them cooler.
The fur or coat on a camel can reflect the sun and insulate the animal from the heat radiated from the desert environment
Camels can withstand variations in temperature and water intake beyond what other animals can handle. Their body temperatures range from 93 F during the night and 106F during the day. This variation helps them reduce the amount of fluid they lose from sweating. A body weight loss of 20 to 25% from sweating can occur before a camel becomes dehydrated. Most other animals cannot exceed a 3-4% loss before heart failure occurs.
Camels have oval shaped red blood cells which helps keep blood flowing in dehydrated states. The cells can also handle the changes that occur when the camel consumes large amounts of water. This process is called osmotic variation.
The nostrils of a camel trap and recycle water vapor from exhalation and return it back to the body, reducing the amount of water lost during the respiration process.
An inner nictitating membrane protects the camel’s eyes from blowing sand. This inside lid is very thin - when closed the camel can still see through it.
The waste of a camel releases very little moisture. Their urine is the consistency of syrup and their fecal pellets are dry enough to use as fire fuel or cooking fuel.
There are a number of different sounds that the camel can make. Grumpling, bellowing and grunting sounds are common. They also can bleat like a goat or lamb. They also make a loud roaring noise.
What is the difference between Bactrian camels and dromedaries?
Bactrian camels’ native range is the steppes of north eastern Asia. They have two humps. The wild species is considered to be endangered as only about 950 remain in northwest China and Mongolia. There are probably 1.4 million domesticated Bactrian camels today.
Dromedaries have only one hump and flourish in the deserts of north Africa and the Middle East. Read more about the Bactrian camel.
Dromedary (one-hump): Camelus dromedarius
Bactrian camel (two-humps, endangered): Camelus bactrianus
Dry desert areas of southwestern Asia, the Sahara Desert in North Africa and along the Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East and Indian desert areas. There is a large feral population of dromedary camels in the Australian outback.
- Long eyelashes
- Large dark eyes
- Protruding eye ridge bone and thick eyebrows
- Third eye lid to protect eyes from sand
- Short rounded ears, lined with thick fur
- Long curved neck
- Deep, narrow chest
- Four long legs
- Wide feet with two toes and hoof on the front
- One or two humps on back approx. 30" high
- Hump is about 30 inches tall
- Light brown or beige fur
- Tail around 20" long
- Height: 6' at shoulder , 7' at hump
- Weight: 500 to 1500 lbs
- Body length: approx. 10'
- More than half of the world’s camel population is found in Somalia, a region of Ethiopia.
- Camels only sweat when the outside, daytime temperature is 106°F or higher.
- Camel calves are born without a hump.
- A camel can drink anywhere from 5 gallons to 21 gallons per day.
- Though they have a reputation for spitting, the substance they expel is really regurgitated food, much more noxious than spit, and far less moist. Most camels only spit when provoked.
- Camels do not store water in their humps, the humps contain fat.
- The U.S. Army experimented with the use of camels in the 1800s.
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Read more about the Bactrian camel.
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