Few animals live in deserts that do not rely on a regular water supply. Water is required to maintain a constant body temperature and eliminate waste matter from the body. Many animals have been used in the desert, but only the camel has adapted to help man in the hot sun of the desert.
The camel seems to have been created for the desert itself, and through evolution, this is what has happened. The camel is dependent on the desert for sustenance and will only reproduce in these hot, dry conditions.
There are three species of camel. The first is the one-humped dromedary, and these make up over 90% of the total population of camels. The second species is the two-humped Bactrian camel found in Mongolia and China. The third species is the Wild Bactrian camel, and these are critically endangered, also living in Mongolia and China.
Also known as the Arabian camel, the dromedary is a fully domesticated animal. They can easily distinguish themselves from other camels as they only have one hump.
A few thousand years back, camels could be found roaming North America, where they originated. They could also be found in Africa and Asia, although they retreated into the aridest zones when the wet period came.
Under the influence of their surroundings, camels evolved into their respective species. The one-humped dromedary moved to the Arabian desert, while the two-humped Bactrian could be found in Asia.
It is thought that up to 25% of the camels in Central Asia are hybrids, which shows that the two species must have parted ways relatively recently in the history of the Earth.
Camels were domesticated pre-Christ as there is a bronze relief from Mesopotamia dated 857 B.C. with a camel. In the oldest Biblical texts, camels are often mentioned as helpful to man.
The domestication of the camel is much different from the domestication of other animals for man’s use. Whereas dogs and horses transformed the lives of our ancestors, the relationship was reciprocal. By training a horse or a dog, they depended on the animal for their livelihood.
Reindeers were used in the Arctic, but the migrations meant they had to follow them when the reindeer’s food was scarce.
The domestication of the camel led to the appearance of nomads who would travel the deserts of Asia and the western Sahara to trade. The great armies would also later use these routes to take their campaigns into Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
Camels were also used to carry Hilali Bedouins in the 11th century, bringing destruction to the Barbary Coast through Mauritania and Senegal.
The camels range extended as herds of sheep and goats consumed the pastures, and trees were used to make firewood for the Bedouins. As more of the region became desert, the camel was being used to travel further, and man would use it for food, drink, fuel, clothing, and shelter.
How a camels anatomy helps
The camel was perfect for desert life due to its anatomical and physiological evolution. The camel is the most well-adapted animal that lives in the desert.
Camels have long legs that terminate in two toes with nails. The soles of their feet have soft, fibrous padding, which spreads, allowing them solid support on the sand. The padding also helps to provide insulation against the scorching sand. A camel’s feet can walk mile after mile without showing signs of fatigue or burning.
Sand storms frequently occur in the desert, and while humans have to wrap themselves up to avoid the stinging sand, camels are not affected. Their nasal cavities open and close automatically, preventing sand from getting in. A striking feature of camels is their long eyelashes, and these too have a purpose. The long lashes protect the eyes, keeping the sand out.
A camel’s body is covered in soft hair, which helps protect them against the effects of wind and sand.
How do camels cope with the heat?
The main danger in the desert isn’t the sand or the wind but the sun. The heat is the biggest challenge, and camels adapt to this too. Camels are warm-blooded mammals and use body mechanisms to maintain a constant temperature. While most animals will slow down when it gets too hot, the camel doesn’t. Unlike other mammals, the camel doesn’t pant or sweat as both these processes lose water.
The camel has to modify its temperature to suit the weather to counteract the sun. Due to their shape with long legs and necks, they are naturally away from the ground. As most of the body’s surface is away from the ground, the air around it can cool it down. Unlike most animals that need to cool down, the camel does not have a layer of fat around its body. This means that the heat from the animal is not radiated. However, the large hump is made up of fat, and heat is lost here.
The one-humped dromedary does have a thin layer of hair that helps insulate the camel, keeping the sun away from the body. This is unlike most animals, where the fur is used to keep them warm. The dromedary uses its hair to stimulate the cooling process when the heat outside rises.
Even when the camel’s body temperature cannot be kept constant, they can continue with their usual activities even when their temperature goes up a few degrees. No other mammal or bird on the planet can cope with similar temperature increases.
Do camels need water?
Although the camel doesn’t use much liquid to keep its body temperature cool, they need to drink water. Water forms the more significant part of the body tissue and is essential for disposing of waste matter from the body. However, camels rightly have the reputation of being one of the animals that need less water.
Camels can go for days on end without drinking. When I was growing up, we were taught that the camel stored water in its hump or stomach. Some of the books I have in my collection say that you could survive in the desert if you found a camel due to the water in its hump.
Camels feed on shrubs called the camel’s thorn. Growing to 3 feet high, the camel’s thorn produces a large amount of fat and is high in liquids when eaten. As they eat, they put on weight, and the camels rely on this fat supply when food and water run short.
In drought or famine, camels can lose up to a quarter of their body weight without any long-lasting problems. Camels cannot supply their own water as this would cause as much liquid loss through the breath as it would provide it from the oxidized fat.
Although a camel may look ill and skinny when there is a drought or famine, they can still perform as well as they can when at full weight.
Camels can drink up to 30 gallons at a time, and a camel can change from skinny with a drooping hump to its full weight with a new store of fat within two or three days.
Humans and most other animals cannot survive in this way. Even if we have a significant layer of fat, we are more prone to die from dehydration than camels. If we have no way of rehydrating, the water content from our fats and tissues is used up, but unlike camels, the water in our blood is also used, causing us to die.
Camels have oval red blood cells compared to most mammals’ round cells. The oval-shaped cells can circulate in thick blood and expand significantly during rehydration. The cells use only a tiny proportion of the water contained in the blood plasma.
Camels cannot sweat and keep water this way and have another mechanism to ensure that they keep as much water as possible. While most animals pass urea through the kidneys, urea is carried in the bloodstream back to the stomach in camels. Due to this, camels do not need to urinate very often.