The "Bedouin name" for Camelus dromedarius, the 'one-hump' dromedary, also known as the Arabian camel, Ata Allah, God's gift. The name "camel" comes from the hebrew gamal, "to repay" or "requite", as the camel does the care of its master.
Camels have played an important part in the lives of many people for at least four thousand years. And this is mainly because camels have the ability to live in places where other large animals could never survive.
In huge deserts like the Sahara, the climate can be too hot and dry for most animals. There are places where rain doesn't fall for months, or even years. The sand may stretch for hundreds of miles, and animals may have to walk for days to reach water.
The deserts of Africa and Arabia are not the only places where camels live. Some live in Asia, and some live in the mountains of South America. Australia is home to a large population of camels that roam the deserts free.
The camel family is larger and more varied than most people realize. It includes some animals that we normally think of as camels - and some that we don’t usually recognize as camels. Everybody knows about the one-humped camel, or Dromedary (from the greek word dromos). And many people have heard of the Bactrian camel, which has two humps. Few know that llamas and some other animals without humps are also camels?
Behavior Unpredictable at the best. Camels have the reputation of being bad-tempered and obstinate creatures who spit and kick. In reality, they tend to be good-tempered, patient and intelligent. The moaning and bawling sound they make when they’re loaded up and have to rise to their feet is like the grunting and heavy breathing of a weight-lifter in action, not a sign of displeasure at having to do some work.
Body temperature Camels do not pant, and they perspire very little. Humans start to sweat when the outside temperature rises above the normal body temperature of 37C, but the camel has a unique body thermostat. It can raise its body temperature tolerance level as much as 6C before perspiring, thereby conserving body fluids and avoiding unnecessary water loss. No other mammal can do this. Because the camel’s body temperature is often lower than air temperature, a group of resting camels will even avoid excessive heat by pressing against each other.
Colour Camels come in every shade of brown, from cream to almost black.
Ears A camel’s ears are small, but its hearing is acute - even if, like the donkey or basset hound, it chooses to pay no attention when given a command! A camel’s ears are lined with fur to filter out sand and dust blowing into the ear canal.
Eyes A camel’s eyes are large, with a soft, doe-like expression. They are protected by a double row of long curly eyelashes that also help keep out sand and dust, while thick bushy eyebrows shield the eyes from the desert sun.
Feet Camels have broad, flat, leathery pads with two toes on each foot. When the camel places its foot on the ground the pads spread, preventing the foot from sinking into the sand. When walking, the camel moves both feet on one side of its body, then both feet on the other. This gait suggests the rolling motion of a boat, explaining the camel’s ‘ship of the desert’ nickname.
Food A camel can go 5-7 days with little or no food and water, and can lose a quarter of its body weight without impairing its normal functions. These days, camels rely on man for their preferred food of dates, grass and grains such as wheat and oats, but a working camel travelling across an area where food is scarce can easily survive on thorny scrub or whatever it can find - bones, seeds, dried leaves, or even its owner’s tent!
Hair All camels moult in spring and have grown a new coat by autumn. Camel hair is sought after worldwide for high-quality coats, garments and artists’ brushes, as well as being used to make traditional Bedouin rugs and tents. A camel can shed as much as 2.25 kilos/5lbs of hair at each moult.
Hard skin Thick callus-like bare spots of dry skin appear on a camel’s chest and knee joints when the animal reaches five months of age. These leathery patches help support the animal’s body weight when kneeling, resting and rising.
Height A fully-grown adult camel stands 1.85m/6 feet at the shoulder and 2.15m/7 feet at the hump.
History Scientists believe that ancestors of the modern camel lived in North America at least 40 million years ago, wandering across the Alaskan ‘land bridge’ to Asia and eventually Africa. In Asia, two groups separated to become the two chief types of camel known today: the dromedary and the two-humped, shorter-legged Bactrian camel.
Hump Contrary to popular belief, a camel does not store water in its hump. It is in fact a mound of fatty tissue from which the animal draws energy when food is hard to find. When a camel uses its hump fat for sustenance, the mound becomes flabby and shrinks. If a camel draws too much fat, the small remaining lump will flop from it’s upright position and hang down the camel’s side. Food and a few days’ rest will return the hump to its normal firm condition.
Legs A camel’s long, thin legs have powerful muscles which allow the animal to carry heavy loads over long distances. A camel can carry as much as 450kg/990lbs, but a usual and more comfortable cargo weight is 150kgs/330lbs. It is usual for a camel to work as a beast of burden for only six to eight months of the year; the remainder of the time it needs to rest and recuperate.
Life span After a gestation periods of 13 months, a camel cow usually bears a single calf, and occasionally twins. The calves walk within hours of birth, but remain close to their mothers until they reach maturity at five years of age. The normal life span of a camel is 40 years, although a working camel retires from active duty at 25.
Meat The best camel meat comes from young male camels. It is regarded as a delicacy in the Arabian diet, and is gaining popularity in arid lands where it is difficult to herd sheep, cattle and goats. Although it makes for tough chewing, the taste is not unlike beef.
Milk Camel’s milk is much more nutritious than that from a cow. It is lower in fat and lactose, and higher in potassium, iron and Vitamin C. It is normally drunk fresh, and the warm frothy liquid, heavy and sweet, is usually an acquired taste for the Western palate. Most Saudi Arabian camels are females reared for their milk in dairy herds.
Mouth The camel has a large mouth, with 34 sharp teeth. They enable the animal to eat rough thorny bushes without damaging the lining of its mouth, and can be used as biting weapons against predators if need be. A camel gulps down its food without chewing it first, later regurgitating the undigested food and chewing it in cud form.
Nose Large muscular nostrils that can be opened and closed at will protect a camel?s nasal passages. When a camel twitches its nose, it is cooling the incoming air and condensing moisture from its outgoing breath.
Speed Normal ‘amble speed’ for a walking camel is 5kph/3mph; a working camel will typically cover 40km/25 miles a day. Racing camels can reach 20kph/12mph at the gallop.
Tail A camel’s rope-like tail is over 50cm/19” long.
Water Camels need very little water if their regular diet contains good, moisture-rich pasture. Although camels can withstand severe dehydration, a large animal can drink as much as 100 litres/21 gallons in ten minutes. Such an amount would kill another mammal, but the camel’s unique metabolism enables the animal to store the water in its bloodstream.
Weight A fully-grown camel can weigh up to 700kg/1542lbs.
Today there are approximately fourteen million camels around the world, and as long as there are nomadic peoples wandering the deserts and mountains, there will be a use for camels. But, everyday more and more nomadic people are moving to cities to find work.
Some scientists are trying to find a way to raise camels in the deserts without the nomads. They want to find out if they can be raised like cattle on huge ranches. If this can be accomplished, the number of camels in the world may actually increase.
It seems safe to say that domestic dromedarys and Bactrian camels will not become extinct. There may be fewer of them, but there will always be at least some people in the desert who will need them and care for them.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Bactrian camels of Asia. There are only a few hundred left, and people are not taking care of them. People of that region are taking away the water that the camels need.
In South America the future for wild camels is much brighter. It used to be that the vicunas and the guanacos were hunted for their hides and wool, and they were almost wiped out. But now they are protected, and their numbers are increasing. The same can be said for the domestic llamas and alpacas, for they are useful to the people of that region.