Interesting And Fun Facts About Camels For Kids
Long legs, long neck, long eyelashes, a short tail and big hump — do you and your child want to know more camel facts? Then, read on for some interesting facts about camels.
By Susan Philip
“Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton
The word ‘camel’ evolved from the Latin camelus, Greek kamelos, Hebrew gamal (which originates from a root word which means ‘going without’), and maybe even the Arabic word jamala, which means ‘to bear’.
Also called the ship of the desert, camels belong to the family Camelidae and genus Camelus. There are two species of camels, namely Camelus bactrianus (Bactrian camel) and Camelus dromedarius (one-humped camel). These are further divided into two subspecies — Camelus bactrianus bactrianus and Camelus bactrianus ferus (wild Bactrian camel).
Physical features of a camel
Deserts aren’t the most comfortable places to live in. The high temperatures during the day, the extremely cold temperature at night, very low humidity, and the lack of vegetation, shade and water makes survival a challenge. But, the physical features of camels help them survive these hardships and feel at home in the desert.
- Their long legs ensure that the body is raised high above the hot sandy floor.
- The coat of the camel is either brown or grey in colour. The light colour of the coat helps in reflecting sunlight and preventing sunburn. The hairs on the coat insulate the body from the heat and cold.
- An adult camel weighs between 400 and 725 kg, and stands between 5.5 and 7 feet tall at the hump. Yet, compared to the camel’s body mass, its surface area to volume ratio is low. This ensures that it gains and loses heat slowly, thus maintaining an even body temperature for longer periods compared to other animals.
- The most distinctive physical feature of the camel is its hump.
- There are two main species of camels – those with only one hump and those with two. The single-humped ones are called Dromedaries while the double-humped ones are Bactrians.
- They were named by Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus in 1758.
- Nikolai Prejevalsky from Russia discovered a wild sub-species of the Bactrian camel in 1878.
- With all these special characteristics, a camel, on an average, lives for around 18 years, though some live for much longer.
The Dromedary camel and the Bactrian camel
- According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the name Dromedary comes from Latin and the Greek words meaning ‘run’. It may be related to the Sanskrit word dramati – (he) runs about. That should give you an idea of how fast a camel can move. It comes from Arabia.
- The word ‘Bactrian’ refers to the ancient central Asian kingdom of Bactria, where camels were abundant.
- It’s easy to tell which camel is Bactrian and which one a Dromedary linking them to the letters of the alphabet with which their names begin. Imagine the capital letter D lying on its back. It shows a single hump; so the dromedary camel has one hump. Now, imagine the capital letter B lying on its back. It would show two humps; so, a Bactrian camel has two humps.
- The Bactrian camel has longer hairs than the Dromedary, and sheds its fur during the Spring when temperatures begin to rise. The fur begins growing back with the setting in of Autumn.
The Indian camel
The Kutch region of Gujarat is home to a unique breed of camels, called the Kharai. It is recognised as a separate breed by the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources. They feed on the mangroves and saline (salty) plants. That’s how they got their name – kharai, which means salty in Gujarati. And, these camels can swim across the shallow waters to find fodder. That’s why they’re also known as ‘swimming camels’.
The camel’s hump
- The hump plays a very important role in a camel’s life. It acts like a food bank! When the camel eats, the fat gets stored in the hump.
- Unlike other animals, the camel doesn’t need to eat or drink water at regular intervals. It can go for several weeks without food and water. This ability proves very useful in the desert, where both food and water are scarce and very hard to find.
- When the camel doesn’t get food or water, the fat stored in the hump gets released little by little. This not only gets converted into protein but also into water, thus keeping the animal hydrated.
- As the fat in the hump gets used up, it becomes smaller and may sag to one side. But when the camel can feed again, the hump begins to return to normal with fat getting stored there once again.
The camel’s foot
- Camels are ungulates – hoofed animals – like cows and horses. Also, like cows and some other animals, they are cloven hoofed, which means, their hoofs are split.
- Their feet have thick pads. These pads expand when they hit the ground and contract when the foot is lifted off the ground, thus making it easy for the animal to get a grip on shifting sand, and even on snow.
- When a camel walks, both the foreleg and hindleg on one side move together – both left legs move forward, then both right legs, and so on.
- Camels can walk long distances over the desert and that’s why they’re called ‘ship of the desert’. They are ideally suited to carry people and goods across the sands.
- Camels can move really fast too (remember how the Dromedary got its name). In fact, they can achieve speeds of up to 40 kmph. That’s roughly as fast as a racehorse can go!
- It was only because of the camel that trade between the different countries of the vast continent of Africa became possible. They also contributed to the ancient Silk Route which brought such huge benefits to countries from the east of Asia to the west.
- Herds of camels, either free or belonging to breeders and traders, are also known as caravans.
The camel’s eyes and nose
If not a sandstorm, you would have been caught in a dust storm at some point in your life. And to prevent the fine dust particles from getting into your eyes, you would have kept them closed, and even covered your nose. Imagine how bad the situation would be in a sandstorm. But, camels don’t worry a bit about being caught in a whirling sea of sand.
- They have thick eyebrows and very long eyelashes.
- They also have an extra set of eyelids which are transparent.
- The eyelashes protect the camel’s eyes from the airborne sand. And, if sand particles do get in, the camel uses its extra eyelids to clear them away.
- During the frequent dust/sandstorms in the desert, the camel makes use of its transparent eyelids, which not only keep the sand out but also allow it to see!
- And, in sandstorms, do you know how the camel prevents itself from breathing dust in? Nature has given it the ability to close its nostrils!
The camel’s diet
In the desert, vegetation is scarce. Sometimes, it’s just very short plants in the sand which the camel must feed on to sustain itself. But, that’s no problem at all.
- The camel has an unusual upper lip. It’s split into two, and each half can move independently of the other. So, the camel can bring its mouth close to these tufts and pull them up with its split lips.
- Though the camel can live for a week without water, when it finally manages to find some, it can drink up to 100 litres at one go. If humans or other animals try to do that, our organs would not be able to stand the strain.
How the camel keeps its cool
The camel has many ways to keep its body temperature from rising in the hot desert climate.
- It can regulate its body temperature. So, the camel produces very little sweat and doesn’t lose too much water.
- Storing most of the fat in the hump helps the camel minimise insulation throughout the rest of its body. This prevents its body from getting overheated.
- When a camel exhales, the hair in its nostrils traps the water vapour in its breath, which is then reabsorbed by the body.
- The camel doesn’t urinate frequently. And, when it does, its urine is highly concentrated. Similarly, its dung is dry and hard and herders can use it as fuel straightaway, instead of having to sun-dry it like cow dung.
- The Dromedary camel has a thick pad of tissue on its sternum, called the pedestal. When it is resting, this pedestal raises the body a bit from the sand, allowing the air to flow freely underneath!
The camel’s habits
- Camels are diurnal animals – they are awake during the day and rest during the night.
- They are largely herbivorous, mainly eating plants and sometimes dates. Their lips are thick, and the insides of their mouths are leathery. This enables them to eat even the thorny bushes and rough grass which grows in water-starved deserts. Other animals can’t live on such plants.
- Like cows, camels are ruminants and their stomach is divided into several compartments. So, they can bring up the food they’ve eaten and chew it all over again.
- The vast majority of camels are domesticated. They are usually easy-going and good-tempered. But when angry or scared, camels can bite. A kick from one of them can break your leg or even your back.
- Camels have a reputation for spitting when they are annoyed. That’s not strictly true. They actually do more than spit! When they feel threatened, they react by huffing heavily, and in the process, they expel a lot of spittle and throw up whatever they’ve eaten. Yuck!! Take care not to irritate or frighten a camel!
The camel’s habitat
- Though the camel is associated with deserts, scientists believe that the ancestors of the camel came from the cold arctic region.
- According to an article in Nature Communications, ancient camel remains were found in Ellesmere Island, part of the Arctic Archipelago, now a Canadian territory. From there, camels spread to Europe, Africa and Asia. They disappeared from the American continent during the last Ice Age, but were reintroduced again. Camels were also introduced in Australia by settlers.
- The highest population of camels is now found in Somalia, which has around 6.2 million of these animals.
- Dromedaries are domesticated. But, in the deserts of Australia and Mexico, camel herds roam free. They are descendants of animals which were once imported into the region to serve as pack animals, in the days before rail and other mechanised forms of transport became popular. When they were no longer needed, these animals were released into the desert regions of those countries. Such camels are described as ‘feral’. Australia has the largest number of feral camels.
- Feral camels are different from the tiny population of wild Bactrian camels. Only around 950 wild camels exist in the world, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified them as ‘Highly Endangered’.
- Because they are very large mammals, and inhabit desserts where most other animals can’t thrive, camels have few natural predators. Wolves and panthers have been known to prey on camels occasionally, however.
Even though they have few predators, loss of natural habitat due to various reasons is a threat to camels, especially those in the wild.
In the olden days, camels were considered indicators of wealth. They were important to trade, because they could be used to move goods from one end of deserts to the other end. They were also used in battle. However, with the introduction of modern transport systems, they are becoming less and less important. Their numbers are declining as their importance reduces.
The nomadic Bedouins of Arabia depended heavily on the camel for their livelihood. Also, camel milk and meat were an important part of their diet.
In Kutch, the destruction of the mangrove ecosystem due to industrialisation is threatening the existence of the Kharai.
Another important reason is the loss of traditional knowledge. The Raika tribe of Rajasthan are camel herders. Their knowledge about camel care, including natural remedies for camel ailments, was passed down from generation to generation. But now, because keeping camels isn’t enough to earn a living, more and more Raika are turning to other activities. And, the traditional knowledge possessed by the tribe is dying out.
The social life of camels
- Camels live in herds. Each herd has around 20 members, including females, young ones and juveniles.
- A herd is dominated by one male. He establishes his leadership by defeating other males in one-to-one fights. In the fight for supremacy, the rival males bite each other on the foot or head till one gives in. Once a leader emerges, the other adult males may leave the group to form a ‘bachelor herd’.
- Camels usually move in single file. Females lead the file taking turns, while the male positions himself at the end of the line to protect his herd.
- Camels are quite sociable. Unlike many other animals, they don’t really mark their territory. Various wild herds which happen to meet have been known to merge into a large group, swelling their numbers to 500 members.
How camels communicate
Camels ‘talk’ to each other. They have a large repertoire of sounds, ranging from high-pitched squeals and moans to rumbles and snorts. They also move their ears and tails to convey messages, and blow into each other’s faces in greeting. Ugh! Their breath must smell terrible, considering that they keep re-chewing food they’ve already swallowed! Aren’t you glad you don’t have a camel friend?
Scientists believe camels also use pheromones to communicate with each other.
All about baby camels
- Baby camels, called calves, are born after a gestation period of about 12 to 14 months.
- When a female camel senses that she’s about to deliver, she goes away from the herd to find a quiet, secluded place to deliver her baby.
- Normally, a female camel gives birth to one calf at a time, but sometimes, twins are also born. Baby camels don’t have a hump.
- A baby camel can walk within half an hour of its birth! But, the mother and baby remain by themselves for about two weeks, before the little one is introduced to the herd and becomes a part of the group.
- Normally, a mother camel feeds her baby for up to two years. Even after it is weaned, the mother continues to protect her calf till it is around five or six years old. During this time, the calf learns important survival skills like how to communicate with the herd, what to eat, and where to find food.
The human−camel connection
- Camels have been domesticated for around 3,500 years. Apart from being used as transport, they also provide milk and meat. Their hide and hair are used to make various products, including textiles.
- Camels are considered so important to the economy and culture of some countries that they have been named national or State animals. The Dromedary is the national animal of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Eretria. In India, the camel is Rajasthan’s State animal.
- Culturally, Rajasthan celebrates the camel through the Pushkar Fair held in the month of November. It is so famous that people come from all over the world to attend it. Originally, it was an occasion for camel owners and herders to meet and do business. There was a time when around 50,000 camels were brought to the Pushkar fair. But now, the numbers are much less. Yet, this event, held in the little town on the edge of the Thar desert, still has many activities centred around the camel such as camel race, camel dance, and even a camel beauty contest, for which the animals are given ‘hair cuts’ and heavily decorated.
- Camels are also important to tourism. Many countries of the Middle East, including the state of Rajasthan, organise ‘Camel Safaris’ which are very popular.
- These animals once formed a part of the armies of kings. And, even today, a camel contingent of the elite Border Security Force takes part in India’s Republic Day Parade and the subsequent Beating of the Retreat ceremony in New Delhi. The decked-up camels are among the top attractions of both events.
- The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) which certifies food in our country, and the cooperative dairy giant Amul, have recognised the benefits of camel milk. It is said to be good for medical conditions like tuberculosis, diabetes, and even autism and cancer.
In India, the Dromedary camel is found in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana, while the Bactrian camels can be seen in parts of Ladakh.
To protect the decreasing camel population, the state of Rajasthan has drafted laws which prevent the slaughter of camels and their trade/transportation. Camel milk is also being promoted to add more value to the life of the animal.
The Indian government has set up a National Research Centre on Camel (NRCC) in Bikaner, Rajasthan. Visitors can see different breeds of camel here and learn all about the history and habits of this wonderful animal. You can ride camels and even go on a camel safari. A camel milk parlour offers a chance to taste exotic ice cream as well as hot and cold drinks made from camel milk.
The camel in literature
- The camel has been celebrated in literature over the years. The Bedouins of Arabia have many traditional songs, especially praising the female camel for its loyalty and endurance.
- The Jataka and Panchatantra Tales from ancient India have stories featuring the camel.
- Many of us have read the fable about the Arab trader who took pity on his camel and allowed it to enter his tent, but ended up having to sit out in the open!
- Stories from the Old Testament in the Bible mention the camel many times, telling us that they have been around for centuries. Cave art of camels have been found in Israel, dated even before 5,300 B.C. Miniature paintings from Rajasthan also feature the camel.
- In the famous Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling imagines ‘How the Camel Got its Name’.
- In movies too, the camel has featured widely. Many films set in Arabia have camel-based scenes. There are also films in which the camel is one of the central characters. The 1998 film Itaf by Jean Knoertzer tells the story of how a camel named Itaf and a young boy set out to discover the secrets of the desert. Judas Collar is an award-winning short film from Australia, again featuring the camel.
- There’s even a computer game based on camels – Revenge of the Mutant Camels.
- And finally, the unique voice of the Star Wars character Chewbacca was created by including recordings of the moans and rumbles of the camel!
To help the camel survive and thrive, let us do our best to protect the natural habitat of these unique creatures, so that they can live in safety.
About the author:
Written by Susan Philip on 11 December 2019
Susan Philip, mother to a promising lawyer and an upcoming engineer, believes in empowering her children to be the best that they can be. In a career spanning more than two decades of both online and print-based writing and editing, she has worked for the PTI, UNDP and WAN-IFRA. She also functions as Editorial Coordinator for book projects.
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