In the Sahara, few things
capture the imagination more than the idea of camel
caravans. The two humped varriety is the Bactrian camel
bactrianus) and is restricted to the cold
deserts of Mongolia. The Arabian camel often known simply
as a dromedary is Camelus
dromedarius. The name of camel is related
to the Arabic word for them: jumelle
is the male,
for the feminine.
These fantastic beasts with their sinuous necks and cartoon-like faces are reminiscent of something prehistoric, and they are the best adapted beast of burden for the desert.
The wide, flat, hoof-less feet can walk across the sand without sinking in.
The long double eyelashes protect from blowing sand and dust,
Tear glands continually rinse the eye surface and a thin translucent inner eyelid can be closed to protect thier eyes while allowing them to see.
They can close off their nostrils completely in addition to the thick hairs in the nostrils that help filter the air.
Their small ears are also covered with hair inside and out to filter blowing sand and dust.
The narrow body presents a small surface area for the sun to hit when directly over head, They also tend to turn into the sun when they sit so as to present the smallest possible surface area to the sun.
Camels need little food and will avoid eating during the hottest times so as not to generate heat, instead they rest. Camels will sit together in groups in the heat of the day when their body's temperature is lower than that of the air, thus insulating them from the heat.
Heavy coarse hair insulates the camel's back from the heat of the sun.
Thin skin on the belly with blood vessles close to the surface help cool the animal.
Their bodies which can cope with extreme changes in body temperature durning a given day
Camels are an average of 2 meters (nearly 7 ft) tall at the shoulder and their long legs keep the body away from the heat of the sand,
Leathery callus-like pads grow on the chest and knees of the camel where its body touches the ground when it sits.
The urine splatters the rear legs when it falls also cooling the beast.
Camels store water for days or weeks and their system is so efficient that the dung is almost completely dry and the urine a thick concentrate. In the cool season a camel can go for two months without drinking; in the hot season they need to drink every week. The thick hair also prevents evaporation of sweat. They can survive dehydration of up to 25% of their body's weight (most mammals will die at 12-15% loss) When thirsty a camel can guzzle 100 litres (~25 gallons) in 10 minutes!
The fatty tissue of their hump is also a great energy reserve which permits them to do the long arduous treks accross dersert areas.
The camel is a ruminant which means its food is digested by poorly chewed food going to the first of a series of stomach compartments and the resulting cud is regurgitated, chewed and swallowed before moving on to the next compartment. They have 34 strong teeth, sharp incisors in front for cutting off tough desert grasses and foliage and large grinders in the back for chewing the cud. The inside of the mouth is so tough and leathery that the thorns and burs common to many of the desert flora do not bother it at all.
A bridle and bit would interfere with the digestive process so camels are led with a cord either through the nose or in a slip knot around the lower jaw in the gap between front and back teeth. Like a horse, the head is pulled to the the left to go left and right to go right and pulled back to stop. While riding the rider's feet are kept on the camels neck and a nerve is pinched between the toes to increase speed, a riding crop may also be used on the flanks or the feet tap the camels shoulders when in the royal saddle.
Aside from the bull camel, who can become aggressive if he is not castrated early enough, they are fairly docile and patient creatures, more than content to plod along at a steady pace, following the leader.
They are capable of running, and when they do, they are not much slower than a horse. In Australia a 100 mile race was run between a camel and a horse. The horse won by a little bit and dropped dead. The camel had a drink of water, something to eat and a good night's sleep and then ran back the next day at the same speed. They also have an intermediate speed that is an energy saving pace where both legs on one side move at the same time. This causes a swaying motion that has earned them the title "ships of the desert"
Speaking of stamina a camel can carry 250 kg (550 lbs) everyday for forty days walking 70 km a day. Of course by the end of this trek the camel, starting at around 700 kg (1545 lbs), will have lost 30% of its weight. Its hump will have diminished to almost nothing. In order to regain the lost weight the camel will have to rest and eat for six months. A fully grown camel can actually carry up to 450kg (1000lbs) but this is a strain and is never done for any length of time.
They do sometimes voice complaints when being loaded or saddled, loud groaning cries that sound angered or distressed. Beyond this they make no complaint and rarely show signs of illness of fatigue. It is the camel's one flaw as there is no prior warning of a problem. The camel will work hard everyday for years and suddenly drop dead.
Typically, a camel will live for 30 to 40 years. A young male can be trained and start carrying a load at two years old. At around 35 it is considered too old to be productive and is slaughtered for food. The meat is tough and must be cooked a long time to become tender. The fatty hump is considered a delicacy.
The females can start having babies at age five. Gestation is one year and then one year of drinking it’s mothers milk before it is weaned. Thus from age five a female can give birth every two years, and can continue until her death at 40 or so about 15 offspring. While giving some of its milk to its young, camel herders spin camel hair and weave sacks that they tie over the udder to prevent the baby from drinking it all. The rest of the milk is collected for the nomads to drink or make into cheese, a special process requiring the help of small growths in the intestine of a sheep to curdle it. Without this not only is cheese impossible but the milk can rest unspoiled for extremely only periods of time, a very useful attribute in the heat of the desert with no refrigeration. The milk has the lowest milk-fat of any mammal and the highest salt content.
Camel hair is also made into rope as is the skin of the animals. Camel skin is used in a variety of artisan products, from tents and pillows to tobacco pouches and decorative boxes.