Ships of the Desert Are Not All Alike

Ships of the Desert Are Not All Alike


Often referred to as ships of the desert, the camel family (Camelidae) first evolved in North America approximately 44 million years ago during the Eocene period. Yes, it's hard to believe when you consider that today they are only found in the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia, such as China's Gobi Desert and the Mongolian steppes.

There are three types of camels: the dromedary or Arabian camel with its single hump and distinctive long legs; Bactrian camels with their stocky bodies, shorter limbs, and two humps; and the wild Bactrian, the rarest of the three. While they also have two humps, wild Bactrians are genetically separated and physically leaner than their domesticated counterparts — and there are barely 1,000 of them left on the planet.

Arabian Camels

Domesticated for approximately 3,500 years, they have long been valued as pack animals due to their ability to carry large loads for up to 25-30 miles a day. Dromedaries can weigh between 700 and 1,700 pounds and stand over 7-feet tall at the hump.

Speaking of which, their hump can store up to 80 pounds of fat, which has the ability to break down into fluids and energy when other sources aren't available. These reserves give camels the ability to travel up to 100 miles without agua. When they do take in water, a very thirsty camel can drink 30 gallons of water in just 13 minutes!

These one-humped camels represent a whopping 94 percent of the camelid population and can tolerate up to 30 percent water loss, which no other mammal can achieve.

Bactrian Camels

Ideal for carrying people and goods across rocky Central Asian deserts, Bactrians can weigh between 1,300 and 2,200 pounds and are considered the largest animals in the desert. They are able to survive extreme weather fluctuations and, like other camels, their humps store fat, not water, that breaks down to supply them with the resources they need.

Known for their large two-toed hooves and thick, wooly coats that provide warmth from the cold and insulation from the desert heat, there are over 2 million Bactrian camels, and almost all of them are domesticated.

Named after Bactria, a region in ancient central Asia, their history intertwined with humans in about 2,500 BC, around the same time as domestication. Two-humped camels are known for assisting early merchants traveling on the Silk Road by pulling caravans.

Wild Bactrian Camels

Living in relative isolation in the far reaches of China and Mongolia — including the Taklamakan, Kumtag, and Gobi Deserts — their habitat consists of arid plains and hills where water sources are scarce and very little vegetation exists. Shrubs are their main food source.

While not as big as their domestic cousins, genetic studies have established that it is actually a separate species that diverged from the Bactrian camel about 1.1 million years ago. Still, they weigh between 600 and 1,500 pounds and live to be 40 years old in the wild. They also have a well-developed sense of sight and smell.

Like all camels, their splayed feet allow them to walk on rough, hot, or sandy terrain with relative impunity. Their shaggy body hair changes color during winter and sheds in the summer. Considered social, they migrate in herds of up to 30 and are known to be good swimmers.

Critically endangered, wild bactrian camel populations continue to decrease. The Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF) is the only charity in the world with a specific mission to save this remarkable creature and its pristine desert environment from extinction and destruction.

Rebecca West

Rebecca is a writer and editor for both print and digital with a love for travel, history, archaeology, trivia, and architecture. Much of her writing has focused on human and animal health and welfare. A life-long pet owner, she has taken part in fostering dogs for military members during deployment and given many rescued and surrendered dogs the forever home they always wanted. Her two favorite canine quotes are, "Be the kind of person your dog thinks you are," and "My dog rescued me."

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