There are two groups of camel, the Dromedary (single hump) and Bactrian (two humps). Small ears are lined with fur to filter out dust, hearing is acute. Eyes are large, protected with a double row of long curly eyelashes and thick bushy eyebrows to shield them from the desert sun. Moulting is in spring, up to 2.25kg of hair, which is sought after for rugs, coats, garments and artists’ brushes. Thick callus-like bare spots on chest and knee joints from 5 months of age help support body weight when kneeling and rising. Powerful legs allow it to carry heavy loads up to 450kg over long distances for 6-8 months a year.
Gestation is 13 months. A camel cow usually bears a single calf, occasionally twins. Calves walk within hours of birth but remain close to their mothers until they reach maturity at 5 years of age. Normal lifespan is 40 years, although a working camel retires at 25.
Camels have a reputation for being bad-tempered, obstinate creatures who spit and kick, but can be good-tempered, patient and intelligent. The moaning and bawling sound they make when they’re loaded up and have to rise to their feet is like the grunting of a weight-lifter in action, not a sign of displeasure. Camels do not pant and perspire very little. Large muscular nostrils can be opened and closed at will to protect its nasal passages. When a camel twitches its nose, it is cooling the incoming air and condensing moisture from its outgoing breath. Walking speed is 5kph, running up to 20kph.
A camel does not store water in its hump, this is, in fact, a mound of fatty tissue from which the animal draws energy when food is hard to find. When a camel uses its hump fat for sustenance, the mound shrinks and can flop down. Food and rest will restore its condition. A large mouth with 34 sharp teeth enables it to eat rough, thorny bushes without damaging the lining of its mouth. Food is gulped down without chewing, later regurgitating the undigested food and chewing it in cud form. A large camel can drink as much as 100 litres in ten minutes. This amount would kill another mammal, but its unique metabolism enables it to store the water in its bloodstream. A camel can go 5-7 days with little or no food and water. Preferred food is dates, grass and grains such as wheat and oats, but where food is scarce it can easily survive on the thorny scrub or whatever it can find – bones, seeds, dried leaves, or even its owner’s tent!