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Camel: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Camels are extraordinary creatures, often hailed as the “ships of the desert” for their ability to traverse arid landscapes while carrying heavy loads.

Found primarily in arid regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, these resilient animals have been a cornerstone of human civilizations for thousands of years, aiding in trade and travel.

This article aims to give you a comprehensive understanding of camels—from their biology and behavior to their roles in ecosystems and human society.

The Camel at a Glance

Classification

Kingdom:Animalia
Phylum:Chordata
Class:Mammalia (Mammals)
Order:Artiodactyla
Family:Camelidae
Genus:Camelus
Species:C. dromedarius (Dromedary), C. bactrianus (Bactrian)

Essential Information

Average Size:7 to 11 feet (2.1 to 3.4 m) long, 6 to 9 feet (1.8 to 2.7 m) tall at the hump
Average Weight:1,000 to 2,200 pounds (450 to 1,000 kg)
Average Lifespan:40 to 50 years
Geographical Range:Africa, Middle East, Central Asia
Conservation Status:The wild camel is Critically Endangered (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

There are two primary species of camels:

  1. Dromedary Camel (Camelus dromedarius): Also known as the Arabian camel, this species is characterized by a single hump. Native to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, dromedaries are the more common of the two species. They are well-adapted to hot, arid climates.
  2. Bactrian Camel (Camelus bactrianus): Native to Central Asia, this species has two humps. There are two types of Bactrian camels: domestic Bactrian and wild Bactrian (C. b. ferus), the latter being critically endangered.

Key Differences

  • Number of Humps: Dromedaries have one hump, while Bactrians have two.
  • Coat: Bactrian camels have a thicker coat, which can be shed, to adapt to their cold desert habitat. Dromedaries have a lighter coat suitable for hot, dry climates.
  • Size: Bactrians are generally larger than Dromedaries.
  • Speed: Dromedaries are generally faster and can travel longer distances without water.
Dromadery camel in Morocco
Dromedary camel in Morocco

Description

Camels are large, sturdy mammals with distinctive humps on their back. The size and number of humps vary between species. Dromedary camels have a single, large hump, while Bactrian camels have two smaller humps. Their fur ranges in color from light brown to dark brown, and they often have long eyelashes and narrow, slit-like nostrils to protect against sand and dust.

Their legs are long and strong, making them ideal for long treks across deserts. The feet are broad and padded, which helps distribute their weight and prevents them from sinking into the sand.

Camels possess unique anatomical features that help them adapt to their arid habitats. Their humps store fat, not water, which they can metabolize for energy during long periods without food. The narrow nostrils can be closed to keep out dust, and their unique kidney and intestinal structures allow them to conserve water, making it possible for them to go for up to two weeks without water.

Male camels are generally larger than females and often have a more robust hump. During the breeding season, males may develop a soft palate, known as dulaa, that they inflate and dangle out of the side of their mouth to attract females.

Habitat and Distribution

Camels primarily inhabit arid regions such as deserts, semi-deserts, and dry grasslands. Dromedary camels are mostly found in North Africa and the Middle East, including countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Bactrian camels are native to the cold deserts of Central Asia, including regions in China and Mongolia.

Camel in Mongolia
Camel in Mongolia

Behavior

Camels are diurnal animals, meaning they are most active during daylight hours. They are well-adapted to their harsh living conditions and can cover great distances in search of food and water.

Camels are social animals that usually live in groups called caravans, which typically consist of up to 20 individuals led by a dominant male. During the breeding season, males compete for the attention of females in the group.

Camels communicate using a variety of vocalizations, such as moans, groans, and roars. They also use body language, like neck arching and head bobbing, to communicate with other members of their group. Some studies even suggest that camels have a system of foot stomps and tail movements to signal different messages.

Camels have a keen sense of direction, and there have been reports of camels navigating their way across vast stretches of desert with remarkable accuracy.

Contrary to popular belief, camels are generally gentle and intelligent animals. However, they can become aggressive or stubborn if mistreated or stressed.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Camels are primarily herbivores, feasting on grains, dry grass, and grains. They also eat dried leaves and grains when fresh food is not available. Camels are known for their ability to eat thorny plants thanks to their tough mouths.

Camels have a unique way of eating; they use their split, leathery lips to grasp and pull food into their mouths. They are also known to consume up to 40 gallons of water in one go when rehydrating, although they can survive for weeks without water due to their specialized metabolic systems. They often feed in the early morning or late afternoon when temperatures are cooler.

Predators

Adult camels have few natural predators due to their large size and ability to defend themselves. However, young camels are more susceptible to predation.

In Africa and the Middle East, predators like lions, hyenas, and wolves are known to target weak or young camels. In Central Asia, where Bactrian camels are found, wolves are the primary natural threat.

Camels in winter

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Camels generally have a seasonal breeding cycle, although this can vary depending on the region and climate. During the breeding season, males often become more aggressive and may fight for access to females.

The gestation period for a camel is around 13 to 15 months, after which a single calf is usually born, although twins are not uncommon.

A female camel generally gives birth to one calf, although twins can occur. After birth, the calf can stand and walk within a few hours. The mother is highly protective of her young and will keep them close for several months. The young camels are usually weaned at around 1 to 2 years of age but may continue to follow their mothers for up to 5 years.

Reproduction and the raising of young are communal efforts, often involving multiple females in a group who may help care for the young. This not only increases the survival rate of the offspring but also strengthens the social bonds within the group.

Conservation and Threats

Camels are generally not considered to be at risk of extinction. The Dromedary camel is not listed as endangered, but the Bactrian camel is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List, mostly due to habitat loss and illegal hunting.

Habitat degradation due to human activities and climate change poses a threat to the natural environments where camels are found. Overhunting for meat and hide is also a concern for wild Bactrian camels.

Several conservation programs aim to protect the wild populations of Bactrian camels, mostly focused on habitat preservation and anti-poaching measures. Some programs also work towards sustainable management of camel populations in general, including efforts to improve breeding practices and veterinary care for domesticated camels.

Fun Facts

  1. Camels can close their nostrils to prevent sand from entering their noses.
  2. The hump of a camel is not filled with water; it’s actually a fat reserve that can sustain the animal for weeks.
  3. Camels have a third eyelid to protect their eyes from sandstorms.
  4. They have an incredible ability to regulate their body temperature, ranging from 93°F to 105°F.
  5. Contrary to popular belief, camels are not native to Australia; they were imported during the 19th century and have since established a feral population.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long can a camel go without water?

Camels are known for their remarkable ability to go without water for up to two weeks under certain conditions.

Do camels really spit?

Yes, camels do spit when they feel threatened. It’s one of their defense mechanisms.

What’s the purpose of a camel’s hump?

The camel’s hump is primarily a fat storage system, providing sustenance during periods when food is scarce.

How fast can a camel run?

Camels can run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) in short bursts, and they can maintain a speed of 25 mph (40 km/h) for longer periods.

What do camels eat?

Camels are primarily herbivores, eating dry grains, fruits, and vegetables. They can also consume dried and salty foods that most other animals avoid.

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