C is for Camel

Bactrian camel photo courtesy zsl.org.

There is an old British joke that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Attributable to Sir Alec Issigonis (who originated the Mini auto), the last laugh might be on Sir Alec if he tried to cross the Asian deserts with only horses. While horses did originate and thrive in the grasslands of Asia, the camels always ruled the dunes, whether the sand was in the Sahara, the Gobi, or even the deserts of Australia. A Mini wouldn’t last very long trying to cross the Silk Road. Camels–in particular the Bactrian camels–were the ships that sailed across the Asian deserts.

The camel has a single hump;
The dromedary, two;
Or else the other way around.
I’m never sure. Are you?

Ogden Nash

The mnemonic to separate the two types of domesticated camels, the Bactrian from the Dromedary, is pretty simple. “B” has two humps, whereas “D” has one. The problem is remembering the mnemonic. Maybe after this post, we’ll all just remember the difference.

The Camelid Advantage

What makes camels so special as pack animals? They’ve evolved a number of specialized physical features. First off the humps, which hopefully you learned as a child are made of fat, not water. The camel converts the food and water they ingest into this more efficient storage which is more compact: each gram of fat yields more than a gram of water. Their internal organs also oblige, with stomach, kidney, and lung functions aligned to more effectively absorb water. (Wikipedia has an interesting description of their excretion functions which I won’t provide in detail, but basically they absorb water; water doesn’t leave their body.)

Bactrian camel toes, hooved and easy to plow through sand. Photo from Wikipedia.

Their toes have slight webbing between hooves that make them more effective at climbing sand than other animals. They really do have long eyelashes, the better to keep the sand out during storms, my dear. Their thick coat acts as insulation from heat and cold, so the arid mountainous deserts of Asia won’t kill them with cold or heat. Their mouths have a lining that allows them to eat thorny desert plants. Their eyes have a third membrane that shuts during the massive sandstorms that will sweep across dunes.

Really, what don’t they have that’s perfect for the desert? They have a pad on their breastbone that allows them to sink into the sand without burning and allows air to travel underneath while they’re resting. Their brains don’t overheat as easily, their red blood cells are shaped differently–overall, they’re a triumph of Darwinism, pure natural selection really.

Camel family trees, from Wikipedia.

Camel Taxonomy & Population Estimates

I had a work colleague whose favorite word was “taxonomy,” which loosely means classification system. Apparently, there is something of a knockdown-drag out regarding camel classification, which I’ll get to in a minute. The original camels are believed to have started in North America, crossing the Bering land bridge down into eastern Asia. Told you they could go a long way!

We’ve already covered that there are two major branches of camels within the camel family: Dromedaries and Bactrians. Note that there are other types of camel-like ungulates in the camelid family that branched off, notably the llamas, alpacas, and such. (My Ecuadorian friend calls them “jamas” which sounds so much like pajamas that I love to hear it, and that’s my ignorance of Spanish pronunciation, not hers of course).

But in reading up about how many camels there are, I came across stuff about extinction and some really pretty graphs. Here’s the scoop:

Cool charts! Genetic researchers calculated these to prove that wild camels have their own branch.

People, including zookeepers, sometimes get the Wild Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) confused with the domesticated Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus). They both have two humps, and it might be natural to think of one as a version of the other. But they aren’t, and because somebody (don’t know who, one too many rabbit holes for me) decided to call the wild east Asian two-humped camel the “wild Bactrian” camel, many get them confused with the domesticated Bactrian camel. Why do we care?

Because Camelus ferus, the wild camel, is on the verge of extinction. Population estimates vary, but they range from only 400 to 1200 remaining. They are one of the largest land mammals going extinct, which is a bad thing.

From an analysis of “count the camels” in the Pastoralism Journal, 2020.

How do they know that the wild camel is really different from the domesticated version? That’s where the boxplots and genetic testing comes in. Reading through that fascinating paper on camel differences (see the link under the picture) revealed that the one and two-humped versions both spread east and west after crossing into Asia. One version of the dromedary was then domesticated in the “far west,” i.e. Africa. The eastern “wild” version of the dromedary died out.

One two-humped version that went west into central Asia was localized to Iran and hung around long enough to be domesticated by the Mesopotamians. Another two-humped wild version stayed in Asia, spreading to the east; that’s the one which is now dying out. Meanwhile, those Persians and Mesopotamians put the two-humped version to work, augmented through occasionally interbreeding with the dromedaries, and sent those domesticated Bactrian camels back east to start traveling with goods to and fro. Thus, two genetically different species of Bactrians ended up wandering around in Mongolia.

Overall, researchers estimate that there are some 30 million (maybe more) camels across nearly 50 countries. However, most of those are domesticated dromedaries and the largest chunk of those are in Somalia. Curiously, there’s also apparently a million feral dromedaries running around Australia, because a bunch of camels were brought there by settlers who then couldn’t really use them. Australia is constantly culling the camel population, as they have other non-native species which were un-helpfully deposited into a non-native habitat. Domestic camels gone wild in Australia, while meanwhile the true wild camel, the camelus ferus, is going extinct in China and Mongolia.

Tang dynasty sculpture, available online for $4,700. Photo from ebay.

Ships of the Desert

Why go on and on about camels? Because camels go on and on, which is why they were the main form of transport and shipping during the Middle Ages across Asia. (Talk about your supply chain!) They could carry hundreds of pounds–that’s a lot of silk, pepper, and cinnamon–up to 30 miles a day every day. Different measures are listed, but one says that the dromedary could haul 600 pounds and the Bactrian up to a thousand.

The domesticated version was developed some 4,500 years ago, near the beginning of human civilization and has been used for human and cargo transport ever since. They also make excellent cavalry transport and have been used many times by the military. Of course, horses might move faster as the nomads of the steppes knew, but if you found yourself maneuvered into a desert battle, the camel was your mount of choice. See Lawrence of Arabia.

The U.S. military actually imported a few hundred camels back in the early days of the republic, but their program to develop them was interrupted by the American Civil War. So there were a few bands of wild Camelus bactrianus running around Arizona and Nevada at one point. Sadly, there were left to fend for themselves and hunted for food or sport, so that rumors of them wandering around in Death Valley or Baja California are likely just rumors.

So let’s recap. Horses originated in North America and Asia, but the New World equine version died out, and it was the Asian version that was originally domesticated near the Caucasus. Their horsey descendants were brought back to America to thrive in the West and create a lot of great cowboy myths.

Domesticated Bactrian, photo in Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, the camels started out in North America, walked back to Asia, walked down to Iran and Africa so that they could carry a lot of heavy loads around, walked around Mongolia until some walked themselves to extinction, and others were carried by smart-alecks who deposited them in Australia and back in North America. Where they did not thrive.

No wonder they are thought to be bad-tempered. When do they get to rest?

5 Replies to “C is for Camel”

  1. How I learned Bactrian vs. Dromedary: Lay the first letter on its side. B for Bactrian has 2 humps, D for Dromedary has 1 hump.

    1. I think the Dromedary saddles are on the hump, so the center of gravity would be high. The bactrian saddles might be between humps which would allow bracing. Horses aren’t easy to ride either if you’re not accustomed to it. But good point and thanks for the comment.

  2. I would never have guessed that camels from the Americas. Although, I guess I kind of knew that they were related to llamas, so that should have been a clue.

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