How much do you know about dromedary camels? You probably know that they have one hump. (Bactrian camels have two humps.) You probably know that they can go a long time without water and that they are important beasts of burden for people living in desert areas. You may even know that they spit. But you may not know that the design of these animals is one of the most unusual found in nature.
Camels can eat just about anything. They have been known to eat rope, leather, or shoes, but their normal diet is plants. Virtually all plants in the Arabian desert can be eaten by camels. Their mouths are so though that even a thorny cactus doesn’t bother them. The dromedary camel’s hump is filled with fat, not water as many people think. This hump is a reserve energy supply, so that the camel can survive long periods without food. As the camel’s body draws fuel from the hump, the hump shrinks. When the camel has food to eat, the hump grows back to normal size.
The camel’s efficient use of water is incredible. Camels can drink 26 to 40 gallons (100 to 150 liters) of water at one time. This water is processed so quickly that ten minutes after drinking the water, there is none in the stomach. It is stored in the flesh of the camel. The animal’s red blood cells are able to withstand high variations in osmotic pressure and they absorb the extra water. The camel’s blood can lose up to 40% of its water and still function. If a human loses 12% of the water in the blood, that person will die of dehydration. A loss of 5% results in serious medical problems. However, the red blood cells in camels are elongated so they are still able to flow through the veins even when much of the water has been lost. These factors enable camels to carry a four-hundred-pound load a hundred miles across the desert without food or water.
Not only is the camel able to stand severe changes in water level, but also dramatic changes in body temperature that would kill other mammals. The camel’s body temperature ranges from 93 °F (34 °C) at night up to 106 °F (41 °C) during the day. Only when the camel’s temperature reaches the upper limit does it begin to sweat. The camel’s sweat evaporates at skin level rather than soaking its hair, thus conserving more water by efficient cooling. Camels can withstand loosing up to 25% of their body weight by sweating. Most mammals would go into cardiac arrest with 3 to 4% weight loss from dehydration.
The camel has other special features designed for the desert. The camel’s thick coat reflects the sun and insulates the animal from the intense desert heat. The camel’s kidneys and intestines are very efficient at conserving water. Their urine is like a thick syrup and their dung is so dry it is used to build fires. The camel’s nose traps the moisture in the camel’s breath and absorbs it in nasal membranes. Tiny blood vessels in those membranes take the moisture back into the camel’s blood. There are also special muscles in the nose that close the nasal opening so that sand cannot get in but air can. The camel’s eyelashes arch over their eyes like screens to keep the sand and bright sun out. If a sand grain does get in, there is an inner eyelid that automatically wipes the sand off the eye like a windshield wiper on a car. Hairs in their ears keep the sand out. The camel’s feet are widened and have tough leathery skin between the toes so they will not sink into the sand. They walk with a gate which helps them to not sink into the sand by moving both legs on a side at the same time.
Camels may appear to us to be very ugly, but they are incredibly well designed to be the “ships of the desert.” Their design speaks eloquently of their Designer.
Moody Magazine, September 1981
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