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Bactrian Camel. Photo: <a href="">Michael Pereckas</a>, CC <a href="">some rights reserved</a>
Bactrian Camel. Photo: Michael Pereckas, CC some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Camels

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Do camels really store water in their humps? Well, not really. And they aren't native to the deserts of the Middle East and Asia, either. Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager discuss the different ways camel physiology adapts them to survive in desert conditions, and where this family of mammals originated.

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When you look at a camel, that’s the first thing you think of, that hump on their back—or two humps if it’s the Bactrian camel from Eastern Asia. So you think they’re in the desert and they do well is a desert—it must be the hump.

But if you looked in a camel’s hump, it’s not full of water; it’s full of fat— body fat just like we would have—but instead of spread all over the camel’s body like it would be with us, it’s concentrated up there.

It’s a food storage thing. You also need food in a desert, and that’s also hard to come by. If a camel hasn’t eaten in a long time, and uses up its fat reserves, the hump starts to sag, and then it gets regenerated if the camel gets enough to eat.

Camels store water in their body fluids and their blood stream. They can drink 30 to 40 gallons at once. That is something we couldn’t do if we tried. If a person drinks too much water, it dilutes body fluids, and it distorts blood cells and other cells. Humans would go into convulsions and die if they did that. But camels can dilute their blood that way, and their red blood cells are stretchy, so they can puff up and not burst, as would happen with us.

Camels conserve a lot of water too.  Once they get  tanked up, they can go for days and days without drinking, because they control the loss of body water in ways that we can’t. They don’t sweat unless it’s really, really hot. When they pee it’s very concentrated, so they don’t lose a lot of water that way.

But the coolest thing is their nose and what’s inside the nose, as Knut Schmidt-Nielsen discovered. Normally if an animal is breathing in and out, it’s losing water vapor from the body, when it exhales. A camel has really narrow, thin sheets of tissue in the nose that the air has to pass over. As they are breathe in dry desert air, a little bit of moisture comes out of those tissues as the air goes into their lungs, so they don’t dry out too much. But then, now that you got lungs full of moist air, you don’t want to blow that out into the dessert and lose it all. When the air goes back through those same passageways, the tissues reabsorb that water, recycling it.

Camels are not native to the Sahara or Asia; the one’s you find there are all domesticated. The single humped dromedary in Arabia and the double humped one, the Bactrian camels in colder desserts in Eastern Asia, are all originally from North America, and went over on the land bridge during the ice ages.

We’ve lost all the wild camels we used to have here in North America. The only survivors in the Americas are down in South America: lamas, and alpacas, and guanacos, and vicunas. If you go up in the Andes and see alpacas and lamas running around it turns out they’re not wild either, they’re somebody’s herd. There are some wild vicunas; they’re more skittish. They’ll mingle among the alpacas and lamas sometimes, but those would be considered wild camels or camel family animals.

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