Bet You Didn’t Know THAT About Camels!

I’ve done a number of expeditions by camel — both dromedary and Bactrian. And I like to think I’m fairly well read in the lore of this noble beast.

Well, I learned a pile of new camel facts yesterday when I cracked open the cover of Camel by Robert Irwin.

This is a fascinating read for anyone who is the least bit curious about the natural world.

Camel

Irwin doesn’t just discuss the camel’s unique adaptations to arid environments, and its evolution and ancestors. He also includes chapters on camel culture: the camel in literature and art, the camel’s role in history, and traditional cultures who continue to maintain close relationships with this creature right into modern times.

It’s everything you ever wanted to know about camels but were afraid to ask, written in an engaging and often humorous style that’s fun to read.

I thought you might enjoy a grab bag of camel facts taken from the book — and of course I hope it’ll hook you into picking up a copy and reading it for yourself.

All quotes are from Camel by Robert Irwin unless indicated otherwise. I present them here in no particular order.

A Miscellany of Fascinating Camel Facts

One hump or two?

Ever wonder how come some camels have one hump while others have two?

“The embryos of both the dromedary and the Bactrian have the beginnings of two humps, but in the case of the dromedary these fuse into one during fetal development. (This suggests that the one-humped camel evolved from a two-humped breed.)”

The dromedary is primarily found in Africa and Arabia, while the cold-adapted Bactrian roams the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts of Mongolia and China.

Riding out of the Taklamakan Desert

Riding out of the Taklamakan Desert

Incredibly intelligent or slack-jawed brute?

Every time I tell someone that I prefer camels to horses, I hear the same old cliches about camels being ill-tempered, stupid, stubborn and green-saliva-spitting mean.

None of that has been true to my experience with these creatures.

This quote from Robyn Davidson’s wonderful book Tracks is a much more accurate reflection:

“They are the most intelligent creatures I know except dogs and I would give them an IQ rating roughly equivalent to eight-year-old children. They are affectionate, cheeky, playful, witty, yes witty, well-possessed, patient, hard-working, and endlessly interesting and charming. They are also very difficult to train, being of an essentially undomestic turn of mind as well as extremely bright and perceptive. This is why they have such a bad reputation. If handled badly, they can be quite dangerous and recalcitrant.” Robyn Davidson, Tracks.

Camels are, however, similar to humans in that they’re capable of holding a grudge:

A camel that has been injured by a person, “will bide his time before taking revenge with bites and kicks.” – Hassanein Bey

It’s all in how you treat them:

“I can remember another that was as attached to her master as a dog might have been. At intervals throughout the night she came over, moaning softly, to sniff at him where he lay, before going back to graze.” – Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands

My companions in the Taklamakan Desert

My companions in the Taklamakan Desert

A physiology perfectly adapted to the desert

No animal is more perfectly adapted to the incredibly harsh conditions of the Earth’s arid regions. There’s so much more to talk about in this regard, but here are a few facts that jumped out for me:

“A dehydrated camel can drink 27 gallons in ten minutes. Any other creature would die of overhydration if it attempted to drink so much, but uniquely the camel can store vast quantities of water in its bloodstream.”

“It can drink water with a higher salt content than sea water.”

“A human sweats as soon as temperature rises above the normal body temperatire of 37 degrees, but the camel can raise its tolerance up by as much as six degrees before it begins to sweat. It is unique among mammals in this.”

Riding through a sandstorm in Wadi Rum, Jordan Photo © Jason George

Riding through a sandstorm in Wadi Rum, Jordan
Photo © Jason George

Connoisseur of fine art?

Camels like music.

Irwin writes that in 1911 an experiment was conducted at the Bronx Zoo, where “a naturalist took a gramophone round the zoo and played music to various animals. Although quite a few of the animals were indifferent or even hostile, the llama stood rigid to attention to hear the music. The camel was equally delighted and tried to get its muzzle into the antique gramophone’s horn and rubbed its face against it.”

Bedouin have also been known to sing to camels to urge them on. There are special camel driver’s chants for this purpose. And a camel that is sung to has been observed to walk faster and in a straighter line.

Hmm… I wonder if a camel would enjoy reading my book?

Camel riders define cool Photo © Jason George

Camel riders define cool
Photo © Jason George

They’re crafty buggers too…

“Be careful tethering the camel, as it can use its front lip to untie knots.”

I’ve seen that myself on more than one occasion. And if they sneak off during the night, they’ll graze their way in the direction of home and you’ll have a hell of a long walk tracking them the next morning.

…and even craftier are the Bedouin

Nomadic peoples who herd camels can apparently recognize the track of each individual camel they own, as well as those of several of their kinsmen. They also have a remarkable ability to read the stories these tracks can tell.

Irwin writes, “The explorer Wilfred Thesiger tells of how he was traveling with some Bedouin in the Empty Quarter. They passed some scuffed tracks. An old man leapt down to examine them and then a little further on to examine some camel-droppings which he broke between his fingers. He reported of the tracks: “They were Awamir. There are six of them. They have raided the Junuba on the southern coast and taken three of their camels. They have come here from Sahma and watered at Mughsin. They passed here ten days ago.” (All this was later confirmed in every detail.)

In Jordan with the Bedouin Photo © Jason George

In Jordan with the Bedouin
Photo © Jason George

Useful to humans — for more than just a comfortable ride

“You can use camel urine to wash your hair. It will protect your hair from nits and give it a reddish tinge.”

“Camel’s milk has more fat, three times the Vitamin C and a bit more protein than cow’s milk.”

“It has been estimated that during the First World War 22,812 camels were killed on active service.”

“In 1978 the royal palace in Riyadh acquired an automatic camel milking plant.”

Bikaner, in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, is home to a camel breeding farm. “Camel ice-cream is available at its milk parlour (and is recommended).”

Ryan demonstrating proper usage of the camel-shaped teapot

Ryan demonstrating proper usage of the camel-shaped teapot

But sadly endangered

At the beginning of the 21st century, the UN estimated that there were approximately 19 million camels in the world, with 15 million of them in Africa and approximately4 million in Asia.

Australia also contains a large population of feral camels — camels that were formerly domesticated but have since turned wild.

But the only truly wild camels left in the world is a small population of wild Bactrians in the Gobi region of Mongolia and China. Sadly, these creatures are closer to extinction than the panda.

John Hare, author of The Lost Camels of Tartary, has set up the Wild Camel Protection Foundation in Britain and has been a tireless campaigner for their survival. Read his excellent books about his desert journeys. And please consider contributing to the protection of these incredible animals before they’re gone for good.

 

So there you have it. A miscellany of camel facts in no particular order. I just copied down the bits I found myself stopping to read aloud to my wife.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s contained in this enjoyable little volume. Go out and pick up a copy for yourself.

Ryan and Azaran in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Photo © Jason George

Ryan and Azaran in Wadi Rum, Jordan.
Photo © Jason George

 

 

Comments

  1. That’s cool, Ryan! Who knew?

  2. a camel in Pakistan just killed a guy cuz he was harrassing him while he was riding him. the camel kept turnng its head to look at him. as soon as the guy got off and joined his friends, the camel walked over and pretty much stomped him to death. When my mom saw this on the news, she told me camels take revenge. And i was like, really? At first i didnt believe her but then i read a few articles, and yours as well, and im absolutely fascinated by them.

    I know some people may not agree with me, but i felt absolutely no remorse for the guy, neither did my mom, btw. I felt sorry for the parents that lost their young son, but then they should’ve taught him some basic manners that include not preying on animals. I am absolutely disgusted atthe amount of abuse animals endure at the hands of humans and i wish every animal was capable of exacting revenge.

    great informative article, learned alot. makes me wanna take a camel ride.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Yeah, camels are very intelligent creatures. They can be really sneaky (like when they want to untie themselves and slip away while you’re asleep), and very cunning as well (always testing your boundaries to see what they can get away with). They’re wonderful animals. I highly recommend taking a journey by camel if you ever have the opportunity. It’s the best way to travel the desert.

      I don’t have any sympathy for people who torture or hurt animals. I think anyone who purposefully tortures an animal should be given the exact same treatment.

  3. and yes, i absolutely agree, anyone who abuses animals merits the same treatment.
    this abuse is usually a precursor to violent crimes and i think proper laws should be implemented to deter abusers.

  4. Stephanie says

    I LOVE camels!!! Any great camel sanctuaries in California that are recommended for visit? Looking to connect with camel enthusiasts!

  5. Tonya Haynes says

    When I was much younger I would watch Hollywood Squares with my parents. A question was posed about camels that stunned me and I will never forget it but I’ve never been able to confirm the information on Google or anywhere else. The question was put this way: True or False. If a camel happens upon another camel and sees it has died, the living camel will die from either the shock or sadness. The answer they gave was “True”. Can that even be possible?

    Thanks,
    Tonya

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Hi Tonya,

      No, I’ve never heard of such a thing.

      Best wishes,
      Ryan

    • I don’t know about camels, but I have lived with alpacas (camelid cousins) for 16 years. 1. Over the years, we have had three still births. With the first one, my husband took the dead cria away immediately. The mother hummed constantly and looked for her baby for four or five days. She was clearly distraught. With the next still birth, we left the dead cria with his mother. The mother kushed (lay in an upright position) next to her dead baby and the rest of the herd lined up and filed past, each one touching the mother on the head and then touching the baby. Then they left her alone. After the mother had been with her dead baby for four or five hours, she stood up and walked back to the herd. The next stillbirth was exactly the same as that one. Clearly they recognized that the baby was dead, and to me, it certainly seemed that they realized that this was a significant event. Were they feeling sympathy? I don’t know. To me, a human, it looked like it. Am I imposing human feeling onto those situations? I don’t know. 2. A friend had two sisters in her alpaca herd. Both were pregnant and gave birth. Shortly after that, she began to notice that one sister began to hang back and seemed to encourage her cria to go to her sister. Over a week or so her baby began to nurse from the sister just a bit and the sister stood still for it (unusual). Every day the baby nursed more and more from his mother’s sister and less and less from his own mother. When the baby was about three weeks old, my friend went out one morning to find the mother dead. Her sister raised both her own baby and the orphaned one. 3. Our herd matriarch was the most important alpaca in the female herd and the males in nearby pens seemed to recognize her status. When she died, my husband lifted her body onto a garden cart and wheeled her out through one of the male pens to her burial place. When they saw her coming, her grandsons stopped eating and humming and moved to the far end of the pen where they stood, three on one side of the pen and three on the other side of the pen. They stood straight, silent, heads up as my husband pulled the cart past them. When he lifted her body off, they went about their business.

      • Ryan Murdock says

        Those are incredible stories Barb. Thank you very much for sharing them.

        Have you seen a film called The Story of the Weeping Camel? It was set in the Mongolian Gobi, and tells the story of a camel that rejects it’s calf and refuses to nurse it. And of how the herdsmen helped them to establish a bond. Your story of the sisters, and of one passing on her baby to the other, reminded me of it.

  6. Very interesting article! I wish I knew someone with camels so I could get to know them. So far I’ve only experience with horses, donkeys and cattle. I’ve met a few Llamas but they seemed not to enjoy human contact.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Thanks Dan, glad you enjoyed it. Camels are wonderful animals, very patient and intelligent. Excellent travel companions.

      Best wishes,
      Ryan

  7. Came for the one hump vs two hump answer. Came away with so much more. Just felt compelled to say thank you for sharing your knowledge of these fantastic animals. Now it’s time to find one to take a stroll with. Thanks!

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Thanks very much Kyle, glad you enjoyed it. Please do let me know if you manage to pull together a camel trip, I’d love to hear about it.

  8. Thank you so much for the article. I’ll have to check out the book. I am in Kuwait with my team, and we regularly see camels along the highway in our travels. We would all like to stop occasionally and get to know them, but I wanted to do some fact-finding first. Your article set my mind at ease and my curiosity aflame. Thanks again.

    • Ryan Murdock says

      Thanks Ron, glad you found it helpful. Are there any camel expedition possibilities in your area? I’d love to hear about it if you manage to do some sort of excursion.

  9. Do any of you know what kind of smell repels camels?

  10. I am in the process of writing something that mentions, in passing, the feral population of camels in Australia and came across this fascinating post. You have convinced me that camels have an unexpected charm. My only previous experience of them was getting bitten on the bum by one at the Great Wall of China in 1985. I had never met the surly creature before so I suppose he was just taking out his general temper on the nearest target. The bruise stayed with me for weeks!

  11. It must be an amazing animal so it can make Ryan smile on a picture 🙂 The last one in the article is priceless 🙂

Speak Your Mind

*