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Camels, members of the Camelidae family that also includes llamas and alpacas, are legendary mammals synonymous with desert climes. Three camel species comprise the Camelus genus: Camelus dromedarius, commonly known as the dromedary; Camelus bactrianus, otherwise known as the bactrian camel, and Camelus ferus, the critically endangered wild bactrian camel.
Camels are large mammals that can weigh up to 1,800 pounds and stand over 7 feet tall. Their elongated necks and wide bodies are covered in shaggy beige, caramel brown or even nearly black fur, which they often shed during the warmest months. They have bushy eyebrows and two rows of long eyelashes to protect its delicate eyes from blowing sand and dust in the desert. They also have the ability to close their nostrils when the sand starts swirling, giving the appearance of a slit-like nose.
A camel’s defining physical characteristic is its hump, or in the case of the bactrian camel, its multiple humps. Arabian dromedaries feature one distinct hump while their relatives, bactrian camels, feature two. A camel uses its hump or humps to store fat, up to 80 pounds worth, which it can break down into water and energy when sustenance is unavailable.
Habitat and Range
Camels inhabit desert climates in the Middle East and Asia. Groups of dromedaries, known as flocks or caravans, live throughout arid Middle Eastern regions and the Sahara Desert in Africa. Bactrian camels live in central and east Asian rocky desert environments. According to the IUCN Red List, fewer than 1,000 wild bactrian camels occupy the rocky deserts of China and Mongolia.
All camel species are herbivores and will eat any vegetation that grows in arid environments including thorny plants, dry grasses and saltbushes. They feed on a wide range of foods, which includes animal bones or skin in times of extreme famine. Their tough mouths and thick lips are capable of withstanding sharp, thorny objects, a must in the cacti prevalent desert environment. Much like cows, camels are ruminant animals that regurgitate and chew partially digested cud as a means of digestion. Camels can also go several days without water and are capable of drinking salty or brackish water to satisfy thirst.
Both dromedary and bactrian camel males are aggressive during the mating season, which is in the fall for bactrian camels and the winter or rainy season for dromedaries. Female camels give birth every other year to one or, rarely, two calves.
Christina Stephens is a writer from Portland, Ore. whose main areas of focus are pets and animals, travel and literature. A veterinary assistant, she taught English in South Korea and holds a BA in English with cum laude honors from Portland State University.