Camels have long captivated humans for their appearance and ability to survive in harsh desert environments. There are only three existing types of camel species, differentiated primarily by their humps.
This article describes other characteristics and adaptations that make them unique. We added a hybrid species to expand our knowledge of these desert beasts. Read on to learn more.
Camel Classification And Evolution
The Camelus genus, part of the larger Camelidae family, comprises three species. These include the domesticated one-humped camel, the two-humped camel, and the last existing wild camel species.
Tracing their origins back millions of years, these camels have moved across the globe. Their earliest ancestors journeyed from North America to Eurasia, leaving a trail throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.
The rise of domesticated camels started around 3000-6000 years ago for transportation, food supply, and trading. Today, with increasing desertification and climate change, their resilience and sustainable meat and milk supply are more valued than ever.
The following sections discuss their domestication, hybridization, and many more.
Read More: Camel Facts.
Four Types of Camels
1. Dromedary Camel (Camelus dromedarius)
Domesticated Dromedary Camels live in West Asia's arid and harsh terrains, particularly the deserts in the Middle East and North Africa. These camels, also known as the Arabian camel, have a distinguishable single hump, and they comprise about 90% of the world’s camel populations.
They have developed particular physical adaptations to survive the harsh desert environment. Their long legs protect them from the desert sand, while their broad feet prevent sinking.
The Dromedary camel sports a coat that reflects sunlight and insulates against heat. The camel’s hump is a fat reserve that converts into water and energy when food is scarce.
They also feed on desert vegetation, using their lips to grasp food and large, sharp teeth to break down tough plant fibers.
Despite appearing solitary in the desert, they are social animals, gathering in groups of up to 20, with a dominant adult male and multiple female camels.
Like other types, a female camel can only give birth to a single calf every two years due to its slow growth rate. A newborn camel will stay with its mother for three to five years until it reaches sexual maturity.
Dromedaries' domestication occurred 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. The process captured at least six wild maternal lineages, with similar genetic makeup still found in 70% of today's dromedaries. This points to a 'restocking from the wild' scenario, where wild camels were continuously integrated into domestic herds.
Unfortunately, the wild dromedaries went extinct about 2,000 years ago, probably due to human activities disrupting their habitats.
Feral Dromedary Camels
Interestingly, a group of feral dromedary camels live in Australia. The British had brought them there in the 19th century as beasts of burden, but the advent of motorized transport made the animals obsolete.
So, they released the domestic camels into the wild, where they became feral over time. These camels are the only dromedary camels that show wild behavior.
2. Bactrian Camel (Camelus bactrianus)
The Bactrian Camel, also called the Mongolian camel or domestic Bactrian camel, lives in Central Asia and can be identified with their two humps. They are also the largest among all three species.
Thanks to their adaptations, they can survive in harsh environments, from cold winters to harsh summers. For instance, its two humps store fat instead of water, which the animal converts into energy and water during food scarcity.
Its feet are broad and robust, which makes it easy for the camel to move through the rocky terrain of the Bactrian steppes of Mongolia. The camel's shaggy coat also provides insulation and sheds in the fluctuating temperatures of the Gobi Desert in Northwestern China. Lastly, the Bactrian camel's bushy eyebrows and double rows of eyelashes protect against sand and snowstorms.
3. Wild Bactrian Camel (Camelus ferus)
The Wild Bactrian Camel is the only species of camel that is considered truly wild. Humans have not domesticated or bred the animal in captivity. This camel lives in Central Asia's remote and rugged landscapes, including the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts.
Moreover, they are slimmer than the domesticated Bactrian camels. Their humps are also smaller, and they have less hair.
Bactrian camels domesticated around 6,000 years ago in Central and Eastern Asia, have been selectively bred for different characteristics. For instance, some are larger or produce more wool, while others are docile and smaller.
However, wild Bactrian camels, though related, show significant genetic divergence, ruling out their direct ancestry to domesticated varieties.
Additionally, these types of camels are the only land mammals that can safely intake high levels of salt, eight times more than cattle and sheep.
With less than 1,000 mature individuals in the wild, the wild Bactrian camel population is critically endangered and is expected to shrink by 80% in the next 45-50 years. Reasons include hunting, mining, industrial developments, hybridization with domestic camels, and resource competition. Increased mortality rates predict a significant population decline by 2033.
They currently live under the care of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, which was established in 1997 to protect the wild Bactrian camels.
4. Hybrid Camel (Camelus dromedarius x Camelus bactrianus)
Hybrid camels result from selective breeding and natural adaptation, combining the traits of Bactrian and Dromedary camels.
They commonly live in severe climates such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, surviving temperatures ranging from -40 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Celsius.
Their diet mainly consists of dry grasses and shrubs, with occasional dates, wheat, or oats treats.
The hybrid camels exhibit the physical characteristics of both parent breeds: they have large, robust humps like the Dromedary and strong legs like the Bactrian.
Moreover, they can easily outperform either parent species with a heavier carrying capacity. Their resilience, adaptability, and strength make them ideal for heavy-duty tasks, including riding.
Camels can play an essential role in the socio-economic fabric of human societies in arid regions, providing wool, milk, meat, and transportation.
However, the survival of some camel species, such as the wild Bactrian camel, is threatened due to climate change and habitat loss.
Protecting these species is crucial for preserving their ecological networks and the global ecosystem.