9 Fascinating Facts About Camels

Did you know that camels can go days or weeks without eating or drinking? Discover more about these remarkable humped land mammals.

Herd of Bactrian camels walking past a mountain
Herd of domesticated Bactrian camels.

Jenner Images / Getty Images

Camels are large land mammals best known for their humps. There are three camel species: dromedary, Bactrian, and wild Bactrian camels. The single-humped dromedary camel represents 90% of the world camel population. There are two species of Bactrian camels, wild and domesticated, which both have two humps. Wild Bactrian camels are critically endangered with fewer than 1,000 individuals remaining.

Domesticated Bactrian camels are found in Central Asia; dromedary camels inhabit the Middle East and central Australia, where they were introduced. Wild Bactrian camels occupy isolated areas of China and Mongolia. From their ability to store energy in their humps to their efficient rehydrating skills, discover what makes these animals so fascinating and unique.

1. There Are Three Species of Camels

Pair of dromedary camels in the desert
Pair of dromedary camels in the desert. MOHAMED ELAMIN EL BAR / 500px / Getty Images

There are three types of camels in the world: dromedary camels (or Arabian camels), Bactrian camels (or Asian camels), and wild Bactrian camels (Camelus ferus). The majority of camels are domestic. The only wild camel species, wild Bactrian camels, are only found in just a few locations in China and Mongolia. 

Dromedary camels are domestic camels with long curved necks and a single hump, while Bactrian camels have two humps. There is no such thing as a three-humped camel, despite cross-breeding that occurs between Bactrian camels and dromedaries. All three species of camels are tall—dromedary camels average six feet tall and Bactrian camels are around seven feet in height.

2. Camels Don't Store Water in Their Humps

The camel's hump is its most notable feature. However, contrary to popular belief, it isn't used to store water. Instead, the hump stores fat. The fat releases both energy and water when resources are unavailable. It also serves another purpose: By storing most of its fat in one place, a camel is not covered in insulating fat and thus can stay cooler in the desert heat. 

Healthy camels with significant fat stores can survive without food or water for a couple of weeks.

3. They Are Built for the Desert

Camels have many adaptations for living in harsh desert environments. To keep out dust and sand, they have three eyelids and two sets of eyelashes. They also have extra thick lips that allow them to eat thorny plants that other animals can't. Thick pads of skin on their chest and knees protect them from hot sand, and large, flat feet allow them to walk without sinking into the sand. Camels can even close their nostrils to keep out dust. All parts of their body that contact the ground when they lie down are padded to allow them to rest for prolonged periods of time without strain or discomfort.

4. They Can Hydrate Quickly

Group of Bactrian camels standing near a small pool of water in the desert
Dave Stamboulis Travel Photography / Getty Images

While camels don’t store water in their humps, these desert animals are great at conserving water. Dromedary camels use heterothermy to regulate their body temperature throughout the day. This prevents them from sweating during daily increases in temperature, conserving water. When a camel does come across water, it can fill up in a hurry, drinking as much as 26 gallons in 10 minutes.

5. Camels Are Social Animals 

Camels travel in herds and both dromedary and Bactrian camels are social creatures. Groups are composed of as many as 30 individuals including a family unit with one dominant male. With the exception of males establishing dominance during breeding, camels are not prone to aggressive outbursts.

They don’t just travel together; camels also communicate with members of their group by making sounds like moans and bellows. Babies stay with their mothers for three to five years after birth, until they reach sexual maturity, and then they often stay on to help care for other offspring.

6. They Provide Nourishment

Camels have provided sustenance to humans for thousands of years in the form of meat and milk. Camel's milk is lower in cholesterol and higher in vitamin C and minerals like sodium and potassium compared with the milk of other ruminants. Milk from camels is also considered to be more like human milk than milk from cows. In the arid desert regions camels inhabit, their meat is also an important source of protein.

7. They Do the Heavy Lifting

caravan of camels carrying materials on their backs across the desert
Roberto Moiola / Sysaworld / Getty Images

Camels have an impressive ability to carry a heavy load, even in extreme heat. The Bactrian camel can carry up to 440 pounds in a day, while the dromedary can haul up to 220 pounds. With just a single rider, a camel can easily cover 62 miles (100 kilometers) in a day, at a pace of roughly 6-7 miles per hour.

When walking, both legs on the same side of the camel's body move at the same time, called a pace. Because the fat stored in their humps provides energy, these herbivores are able to work without requiring frequent breaks for food or water. This is why they've long been used to haul goods in caravans across deserts and other inhospitable regions.

8. They Sleep Somewhat Unusually

Camels have to sleep, of course, but studies have found that they do it somewhat differently than other large mammals. Out of a 6- or 7-hour night, they sleep only 1.7 hours on average (a combination of REM and non-REM sleep), while the rest of the time is spent drowsing, ruminating, or being awake. They move between these various states, likely to stay vigilant. It's interesting that drowsiness is considered part of their sleep. They can sleep standing up or lying down.

9. The Wild Bactrian Camel Is Critically Endangered

Wild Bactrian camel walking in the desert
Wild Bactrian camel. Nancy Brown / Getty Images

Though most camels are domesticated, the small number of wild Bactrian camels remaining are critically endangered. Classified as a separate species from the domesticated Bactrian camel, C. ferus is found in only four areas: three in northwest China (Gashun Gobi, Taklamakan Desert, and Lake Lop Camel National Reserve adjacent to the mountain ranges of Arjin Shan) and one in Mongolia, in the Great Gobi Section A Strictly Protected Area.

There are estimated to be fewer than 1,000 wild Bactrian camels remaining, and their population is expected to decrease by as much as 80% over the next 45 to 50 years. Threats to wild Bactrian camels include subsistence hunting, predation by wolves, degradation of habitat, and competition with domestic Bactrian camels for resources. In China, the wild Bactrian camel is also threatened by the potential designation of its habitat for industrial use.

Save the Wild Bactrian Camel

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