Camels of the World



The camel family Camelidae is placed in order Artiodactyla, which includes even-toed ungulates. The old-world genus Camelus has two species, C. bactrianus (two-humped camel) and C. dromedarius (one-humped camel). The South American genus Lama has three species while the genus Vicuna has only one species. Camels are cud-chewing animals but lack omasum, the third division of the stomach in ruminants which is considered the water reabsorbing portion of the stomach. Camels also do not have a gallbladder. 

The Bactrian camel

The Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) is found in central Asia in Gobi desert and the deserts of Mongolia and Xinjiang and small numbers in the Mangystau Province of South West Kazakistan. Only about 1000 are estimated to be living in the wild in northwest China and Mongolia and are classified as critically endangered on the IUCN red list of threatened species. A small population also exists in Nubra Valley of Ladakh, where they were introduced by traders of Yarkland in 19th century while travelling along the famous silk route through the Great Himalayas. As these trade routes were closed in early fifties, these camels were left to stay in Ladakh with their local traders and some became wild. By 1986 there were only 45 Bactrian Camels left in Nubra valley.

Their name is derived from the ancient region of Bactria where they occurred. Some taxonomists use the binomial name Camelus ferus for the wild race of the Bactrian camel and Camelus bactrianus for the domesticated race.

The average life span of these camels is 40 to 50 years. The adult stands 1.85 m at the shoulder and 2.15 m at the hump and body length can reach up to 10 feet. The hump is about 24 inches over its back and is mainly made of fat deposits which are used in periods of food scarcity. Stored fat of the hump can be converted into water and energy when food and water is not available and therefore these camels can endure long periods of travel without food and water in harsh desert conditions. Bactrian camel’s nostrils can be closed to keep the sand particles out, and their bushy eyebrows and two rows of long eyelashes protect their eyes from sand. Big flat footpads help them navigate the rough rocky terrain and shifting desert sands without sinking.

Bactrian camels are adapted to withstand wide variations in temperature from freezing cold to blistering heat. They have a remarkable ability to go without water for months at a time, but when water is available they can drink up to 100 liters in only 15 minutes. Bactrian camels are said to be good swimmers. The sense of sight is well developed and the sense of smell is extremely good. 

Dromedary camel

The Dromedary Camel is an even-toed ungulate found in northern and eastern Africa, Arabia and western Asia. An introduced feral population is also found in Australia. They have only one hump, which can store up to 40 kg of fat that can be broken down into water and energy during periods of scarcity. These humps give camels their legendary ability to travel several days without water. Camels rarely sweat, even in desert to conserve water. Females become sexually mature in 3-4 years and males in 5-6 years. In captivity they can live for about 50 years. Unlike other animals, camels move both legs of one side of body at the same time. The color of body varies from cream to almost black. They have broad, flat, leathery pads with two toes on each foot. When a camel walks the pads spread out, preventing the foot from sinking into the sand. The camel has a large mouth with 34 sharp teeth. Their nasal passage is protected by large muscular nostrils that can open and close. In hot weather, camels can increase their own body temperature to prevent sweating and water loss. Camel’s body temperature fluctuates from 34 to 42°C to conserve water by not sweating with the rise in atmospheric temperature. Camels can endure 40 percent loss of body mass in the absence of food and water, an amazing feat in comparison to the fact that a 15 percent loss would kill most other mammals.

When water is available, they can drink 200 litres of water in a day. Their height is 6-7 feet and weight about 500 kg; hump is about 30 inches high. They can run at a top speed of about 60 km per hour. The thick coats of camels reflect sunlight and serve as insulation from the heat, cold and sand. Whether one-humped or two, Camels have unique adaptations that make it possible for them to live in harsh climates. Even when this eyelid is closed, the camel can still see, allowing them to continue to travel in blinding sandstorms. The camel’s ears and nose are lined with hair for protection from dust and sand. The camel’s nose is also designed to trap moisture from the exhaled air, thereby conserving body fluids. A camel’s long legs keep bulk of its body high above the reflective heat of the desert sand.

A camel is a cud-chewer and vegetarian, preferring dates, grass and grain, but when food is scarce, it becomes an omnivore. Camels need salt in their diet and can drink brackish water that would make other animals ill. The camel’s mouth is tough-skinned and has a split lip, allowing it to strip even the thorniest trees of vegetation.

South American camels

South American camels have four species: Llama, Alpaca, Guanaco and Vicuna. The South American camels do not have a hump but they are surely camels which originated from a common camel ancestor of the Eocene epoch. Of the four camel species in South America, two are domesticated and two are wild. The domesticated forms are the llama and alpaca, which are used for tender meat, wool and for carrying load.

Llama (Llama glama) is about 5.5 feet tall and can weigh 150-200 kg. They live in herds and are used as beasts of burden and for fine quality wool. Each individual can carry about 30 kg of burden for about 30 km in a day. Llamas feed on grass and other vegetation and chew cud by regurgitating bolus from their stomach. They need little water and food for survival which makes them ideal beast of burden in sparse mountainous terrain. The wool of llamas is coarse and is used for making ropes and other coarse items. The llama is sheared once every two years to give about 3.5 kg of wool.

 Alpaca(Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated South American camel. It is larger than vicuña but smaller than the other camel species. It is about 4 feet tall and weighs 100 kg. Alpacas are not used as beasts of burden but their wool is very fine and soft and in many colours, often marked with a brightly colored ribbon on their ear pinna. Alpacas have straight ears while llamas have banana-shaped ears and bigger body size than alpacas. The alpaca is the most commonly seen camel in South America with large herds on steep mountains throughout the Andes. Alpacas make communal dung pile in places where they do not graze, a behavior to avoid intestinal parasites. Alpaca meat is a common diet in Peru and Ecuador where it is regarded as cholesterol-free and tender like steak. Its wool is 5-7 times warmer than sheep wool due to microscopic air pockets that trap warm air. The wool has no lanolin and the fiber is less itchy and softer.

Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) is wild South American camel, living in the mountains of Peru and Ecuador and in the hills and plains of Patagonia, in Colombia, Chile and Argentina. Its fur tends to be a lighter brown with a white belly and gray face. They are believed to be the ancestors of the modern Llamas. Guanacos stand about 4 feet tall and weigh about 100 kg. To protect its neck from harm, guanacos have developed thicker skin on its neck. Mating season occurs between November and February during which males often fight violently to establish dominance over females.

Vicuna (Vicugna vicugna) is the smallest and leanest of all camels, which is only about a meter tall and weighs about 50 kg and has the biggest eyes sharpest vision among camels. They have poor sense of smell. Once widespread on the higher plains of the Andes, the vicuna has been seriously reduced in numbers due to over-hunting. Vicuna is believed to have evolved from Stenomyus hitchcocki from the Miocene epoch, about 30 million years ago. It is believed to be the wild
ancestor of alpaca. Vicuna has a thick brown coat that protects its body against cold. While fighting males usually spit at the opponent. The vicuña can run at a speed of about 50 kph. Vicuna’s wool is finer than any other wool in the world but the production is very low.


Huarizo is a rare South American camel that is bred by crossing a male llama with female alpaca.