Camels are perfectly adapted to life in the desert. They include the one-humped dromedaries from North Africa and Arabia, as well as the two-humped Bactrian camels from Asia.
What do camels look like?
Dromedaries and Bactrian camels belong to the camel family and belong to the so-called callous-soled family. This group of animals is so named because the soles of their feet are padded with thick, springy calluses. They don’t have hooves, just very small, fingernail-like structures that protect the front edges of their feet. The calluses on their feet ensure that the animals’ weight is distributed over the loose sandy bottom and they don’t sink in. These calluses are wider in Bactrian camels than in dromedaries.
Camels have thick calluses of horns on the sternum, elbows, heels, and knees. Camels are mighty animals: They are 2.3 to 2.5 meters high at the shoulder. They measure between 2.2 and 3.4 meters from the snout to the bottom. The tail is 50 to 70 centimeters long and they weigh between 450 and 650 kilograms. Bactrian camels are often slightly heavier than dromedaries.
Typical are the long legs, the long neck bent downwards, and the humps: dromedaries have one hump, the Bactrian camels have two humps. Both species have a fairly thick coat of frizzy, woolly hair. It can be of different shades of beige and brown, but also white or even black.
Because Bactrian camels live in a region that gets very cold in winter, they get a very thick, long coat at this time of year. When it gets warmer again in spring, this winter fur comes off in large shreds, so that the animals look really disheveled. A typical feature is also the pace: the animals move the right or left front and hind leg forward at the same time. The camel’s upper lip is split, the nostrils are slit-shaped. They can be closed and are thus protected from the sand.
The camel family originated in North America about 40 to 50 million years ago. About two million years ago they migrated across the Bering Strait to the Old World, i.e. to Asia and Africa. They are extinct in North America. The llamas came to South America during the Ice Age and have survived there.
Where do camels live?
Dromedaries are only found in Arabia and North Africa. There they are mainly found on the edge of deserts such as the Sahara. Dromedaries were introduced to Australia and have settled in well. Some of them have gone wild.
Bactrian camels – also called Bactrian camels – live in Central Asia. There they come from Kazakhstan through Mongolia to northern China and are kept as beasts of burden. Wild dromedaries no longer exist today, and wild Bactrian camels are very rare: only about 950 of them should live in the Taklamakan Desert, China’s Xinjiang Province, and the Mongolian part of the Gobi Desert.
The habitat of dromedaries in the hot deserts and semi-deserts of North Africa and Arabia. They do not tolerate humid climates. Bactrian camels are also adapted to life in the desert. However, they have to withstand much greater temperature fluctuations than dromedaries: In the deserts of Central Asia, it can get as hot as 40° Celsius in summer and as cold as -30° Celsius in winter.
What types of camels are there?
The two Old World camels – the one-humped dromedary and the two-humped Bactrian camel – are so closely related that they can even breed with each other. Crossbreeds between dromedaries and Bactrian camels are called talus or buckets: they have either an elongated or a smaller hump.
The wild Bactrian camels of Central Asia are even described by some researchers as a separate species, namely “saltwater camels”, because these animals can even drink salty water and tolerate it very well. New World camels in South America include llamas, guanacos, alpacas and vicunas. They are all much smaller than Bactrian camels and dromedaries, have no humps, and also do not have thick sole pads on their feet.
How old do camels get?
Camels can live 40 to 50 years.
How do camels live?
Contrary to popular belief, camels do not store water in their humps, but up to 200 kilograms of fat and connective tissue. The fat can be converted into the water in a complicated metabolic process with the help of oxygen – so they indirectly serve as a water reservoir. In cool weather and when eating succulent, water-rich food, camels can go for weeks without supplemental water. In addition, the hump protects the body from the sun by absorbing heat.
The metabolism of the camels is also completely adapted to saving water: the kidneys extract a lot of water from the urine so that the body does not lose it. The feces also contain hardly any water. The body temperature of the camels drops very sharply at night. During the day, the body warms up very slowly.
They only start to sweat when their body temperature reaches 41° Celsius. So they hardly lose any liquid. During a dry season, camels can lose 27 percent of their body weight without dying of thirst. If they find water again, they drink 100 to 150 liters at a time. This is possible because they do not have round but oval blood cells:
Therefore, they can drink a lot in a short time without overhydrating the body. Camels are also raised for fur, meat, fat, and milk. They give eight to ten liters of milk a day. Specially bred milk camels even up to 20 liters. Clothes and blankets are made from the long fur of the Bactrian camels. And finally, the dung of the camels is used as fertilizer and fuel.
Friends and foes of the camel
Most dromedaries and Bactrian camels live as pets. They usually have no enemies. Bactrian camels living in the wild also have few enemies, but they are hunted by humans, although this is strictly forbidden.
How do camels reproduce?
The mating season for dromedaries is between January and March, for Bactrian camels between February and April. The stallions can become very aggressive during this time. They fight each other and sometimes even attack humans. The sticky foam that hangs from their mouths and flies through the air when their heads move violently is typical during this period. Camels mate while lying down. The gestation period is long: in the case of dromedaries, the mare withdraws from the herd for a short time twelve months after mating, and gives birth to a young one. The gestation period for Bactrian camels can last up to 14 months.
The foal weighs about 30 to 50 kilograms. Shortly after birth, it can stand on its thin legs and follow its mother. Both then return to the herd. The young are suckled for one to one and a half years but soon begin to nibble on dry blades of grass. After two months, it regularly eats plants. The animals become sexually mature at the age of three to four years. Females give birth to a young about every two years.
How did camels communicate?
Young camels may call and whine pitifully when looking for their mother. Camels have a so-called howler sac in their throats. With him, the male animals, in particular, can make loud screams during the mating season.
What do camels eat?
Camels are very undemanding animals, they can survive for a long time with very little or even no food. They are pure herbivores. Their diet consists of tough grasses, and they do not shy away from the thorny branches of many species of acacia. They even eat saline plants.
Husbandry of camels
Dromedaries are kept as farm animals in North Africa and Arabia. Only with their help could people colonize the deserts of North Africa. Today we even keep dromedaries as mounts. Bactrian camels are still used today as transport and pack animals in Central Asia.