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Camels (extant/living species; Camelus spp.): Physical Characteristics

Camels (Camelus spp.)

Physical Characteristics

Body measurements

Attribute Bactrian Camel Dromedary Camel
Weight 450-500 kg (992-1102 lb) 400-600 kg (882-1323 lb)
Head-body Length 320-350 cm (10.5-11.5 ft) 220-340 cm (7.2-11.2 ft)
Shoulder Height 160-180 cm (5.2-5.9 ft) 180-200 cm (5.9-6.6 ft)
Tail Length 51-65 cm (1.7-2.1 ft) 45-55 cm (1.5-1.8 ft)

 

Data source: Franklin (2011)

General Appearance

General

  • Unlike their llama/vicuna/guanaco relatives, all camel species have:
    • At least one hump on their backs
    • Long curved necks
    • Broad, large feet
    • Tufted tails
    • Four teats rather than two
    • Annual molt 
  • Domestic camels have been selectively bred over many years
    • Hybridization between species has occurred in ancestry of both domestic species

Feet

  • Large, broad ‘elastic’ pad – hooves are 2 fingernail-like toenails on front of pad.
    • Unique among mammals
    • Other ungulates walk on tips of hoof-covered toes.
  • Wild Bactrian’s hoof is claw-like.

Humps

  • Composed of fibrous tissue and fat.
    • When fat is metabolized, it acts as a source of energy.
    • Concentration of body fat in humps is advantage in hot climate
      • Minimizes its presence throughout the rest of body
      • This reduces heat-trapping that occurs with insulating layers of fat.
  • Available nutrition determines size and shape - humps nearly disappear with starvation.
  • Not used for water storage.

Nostrils

  • Slit-like - can be closed to protect against blowing sand.
  • Special nasal cavities moisten air on way in, trap moisture going out.

Eyes/Eyelids

  • Long lashes protect against blowing sand.
  • Bony arch over eye acts as sun shield.

Ears

  • Small and rounded
  • Hairs protect ears from blowing sand.

Mouth

  • Prehensile lips, upper split in 2 halves.
  • Incisors and canine teeth grow though out life.

 

Species Comparisons

Wild Bactrian camel

  • 2 humps: small, pointed, conical
  • Frame: small and lithe relative to domestic Bactrian; laterally compressed (Mongolian name ‘havtagai’ means ‘flat’)
  • Legs: slender, no callosities on knees
  • Feet: narrow
  • Hair: tan or grayish on body; long and dark brown on upper legs, neck, top of humps, tail

Domestic Bactrian camel

  • 2 humps: large, irregularly shaped, may become flaccid and flop to one side in adult
  • Shorter than dromedaries
  • Legs: short and stout
  • Feet: broad, 2-toed, cushioned by fat
  • Hair: long and dark; annual molt

Dromedary camel

  • 1 hump: more elastic than Bactrian, shrinks with age instead of flopping to side
  • Frame: lighter than Bactrian
  • Legs: longer and more slender than Bactrian
  • Hair: short, light-colored

Other Physical and Physiological Characteristics

Adaptations for extremely dry environment

  • Red blood cells are oval (round in other mammals) Can flow quicker in a dehydrated state.
  • Urine is more concentrated than other animals (less water loss).
  • Dung is dry.
  • The kidneys and intestines are good at retaining water.
  • Can tolerate loss of water equal to over 30% of body weight (Franklin, 2011)
    • Most mammals die if they lose 15%
  • Wild Bactrian camel (not domestic) is able to drink saltwater slush when fresh water is unavailable.

Adaptations for tolerating extreme heat

  • Able to endure temperature extremes, from -40°F in January to over 100°F in summer.
  • Have only 25% the number of sweat glands as found in cattle
  • Only sweat when body temperatures reach 41-42°C (105.8-107.6°F)
  • Long legs keep bodies further from the hot ground to reduce overheating.

Adaptations for blowing sand

  • Long eyelashes and ear hairs form a barrier against blowing sand.
  • Slit-like nostrils can close.

Fat as Insulation

Camel hump

Because fat is concentrated in the hump, and not spread over the rest of the body), it helps a camel stay cooler.

When the fat in a camel's hump is metabolized, it becomes a sourch of energy.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Franklin (2011)
Klingel (1990)
Kohler-Rollefson (1991)
Wild Camel Protection Foundation

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