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The Camel: The Adapted Ship Of The Desert - Yellow Magpie

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Published on September 8th, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


The Camel: The Adapted Ship Of The Desert


Cranky, cantankerous and ill-tempered are some of the words associated with the workhorse of the arid lands. While all of this is true there is much more to the camel than just these few, negative connotations.

The camel can be considered the world’s most successful species when it comes to adaptation. It has managed to not just survive but thrive in some of the driest, harshest and most extreme conditions on the planet.

How the camel can do this is extraordinary. The natural process of evolution has created a living creature so well adapted to deserts that it can survive in environments where virtually all other animals would die.

Dromedary Camel

The Pelmet And Cooling

One of the most immediate problems to deal with in a desert is the heat from the Sun’s rays. Camels overcome this dilemma by some very clever adaptations. The sun-baked soils of these regions can be intolerably hot, enough to instantly fry eggs. Lying down to rest could be highly dangerous. Camels get around this by supporting their entire bodyweight on their pelmet. This is a mound near their chest bone. The pelmet keeps their bodies away from the ground and allows currents of air to circulate, cooling them.

It’s All About The Hump

Perhaps the most famous characteristic of a camel, the hump has two functions. It stores fat and it acts as an insulator keeping the internal organs protected from the heat. The reason camels have humps is because of their lifestyle. They can go for long periods of time without food and consequently need to rely upon a fat deposit for food.

The reason the fat deposits in a single place is to do with heat retention. Camels have two options when it comes to storing fat. They can either coat the entire upper body in a layer of fat which is far from ideal for high temperatures. The other choice is to consolidate all of the fat deposits in one place. The most efficient option was to have hump.

There are two types of camels, those with two humps, the bactrian and those with one, the dromedary.


Water And Conservation

The soaring heat creates grave problems for mammals. Normally, heat stroke would result in such conditions. However, camels keep their brains cool by breathing in cool air, circulating air through a duct that cools down a network of blood capillaries near the brain. This system keeps their most important organ from overheating at all times.

The most valuable commodity for all life, second only to oxygen, is water. Water is highly scarce in arid lands and conserving it plays a crucial role in survival. Faced with such a harsh climate, the ability to frugal use water as efficiently as possible becomes highly valuable. Camels constantly recycle water. Their stomach is lined with folds of skin to absorb as much water and nutrients as possible.

The bladder of a camel is very small, much smaller than a human’s. This is all the more astonishing given the fact that these animals are eight times heavier than us. Camels are so efficient at conserving water that they can go without it for up to six months. They chew the cud, regurgitating their food to maximise the amount of nutrients and water they can obtain from it. Camel droppings are so dry that herders collect them to use for lighting fires.

Camels And Herder Photo By Jordan Busson

Unusual Blood

Camels can drink vast amounts of water in a single sitting. It can consume over one/third its entire bodyweight or over 100 litres of water during one of these sessions. To put this in context, a human could kill themselves if they consume more than two and a half litres in one go. This happens because the red blood cells explode due to excess water.

So how can camels consume such large quantities of water? The answer to this question lies in the structure of their cells. Human red blood cells are disc-shaped. The cells of camels however, are elongated and retain their shape when water courses through the blood. They are the only mammal to have these elongated, oval cells.

Unusual Origins

Many people assume that these humped creatures originated in Africa or the Middle East. The truth is very different. Camels originally came from North America immigrating to South America. While in South America these early camels formed different species alpacas, llamas and the modern camel, the camel in turn travelled back up to North America, along Siberia and made its way towards the Middle East and North Africa.

Camels are immensely strong and the nickname ‘ship of the desert’ is highly apt. They can carry several hundred kilogrammes on their backs. In fact, some camels have been recorded carrying small stripped-out cars. There is also undoubtedly a very dark side to their nature. This is something that goes far beyond their well-documented ill-mannered temper.

Camel Herd Photo By Dario Menasce

Violent Impulses

Camels can be incredibly violent. Males can kill one another by crushing the head of its victim. Weighing up to 600 kilogrammes, adult males are far from light. This gruesome act doesn’t just happen in the wild. It can occur right in front of the eyes of the camel owner. Given the large size of camels there is little the owner can do about it.

Their legs are also surprisingly flexible aided by hips which allow a wide range of movement. They use their legs to bring down their victim. Once on the ground the camel is defenceless against its opponent.

Frugality And Efficiency

Efficiency and the conservation of energy are two things that are embedded into the fabric of camels. Their stride is remarkably efficient. They can maintain a sweeping stride, moving one side of their body in unison, then the other. This pattern allows them to use as little energy as possible. The soles of their feet are protected from the constant vibration by a shock absorbing material which protects their joints.

Camels have also got one more trick up their sleeve when it comes to recouping lost energy. Their Achilles tendon is incredibly strong and elastic. This characteristic allows camels to recover up to 50 per cent of energy while moving that would be otherwise lost.

Animals that live in dry, hot lands frequently experience droughts and cannot afford to be choosy eaters. Camels can eat most vegetation. Their cleft upper lip and a highly dexterous tongue allows them to eat plants and leaves that can be difficult for other animals to eat.

Vital Statistics

  • Camels can be up to 2 metres (seven feet) or more at the hump in height.
  • Adult males can weigh up to 650 kilogrammes.
  • Camels are found in Australia, throughout North Africa, the Middle East and parts of South America.
  • They can live to be up to 50 years old.

Highly Recommended

Inside Nature’s Giants is a well-shot Channel 4 documentary. From September 2011 a book will be available covering the animals shown in the series.

You can get Inside Nature’s Giants from here.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access: Inside Nature’s Giants from here.

For those who live in Canada, you can obtain: Inside Natures Giants here.

For Germany: Inside Nature’s Giants.

For France: Inside Nature’s Giants.

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