Creature of the Desert, Camel
By Catherine C. Harris
When many people all over the world think of Egypt, they think of the Pyramids with a graceful caravan of camels passing by them. Its easy to imagine the caravans of the traders heading into the desert. With no food or water needed for the beasts of burden, we fancy that the journey was made easier. It is a romantic dream of many people to view such a caravan. The truth is, by far, stranger than the myths that have grown up around the camel, the beast of burden which helped spread wealth around the ancient world.
One of the most enduring and misunderstood myths about the camel is it's ability to go days without water. Myth tells us that the camel stores water in its hump. The truth is the hump, or humps in the case of the Bactrian camel, are a fatty deposit that provides energy when food is scarce.
When a camels energy reserves become low from lack of food, the hump shrinks and becomes soft and will actually flop over to one side. The resilient nature of the animal can be seen in the rapid return of the hump to its normal firm upright self after just a few days of good grazing.
The camel stores water in its blood stream, an interesting physiological process. The camel has developed, over the centuries, a unique water saving biology. Capable of losing forty percent of its body's weight before becoming distressed, it is able to go five to seven days before having to drink. The amount it drinks when water is available would cause severe problems in most animals, up to 21 gallons in about 10 minutes. If moisture-laden forage is available, a camel will not need as much water. The water it drinks can be too salty or brackish for other animals.
The camel's mouth, stomach, and teeth have all developed to allow it to eat plants that are not palatable to other desert animals. The camel's mouth is tough and rubbery so that thorns and branches won't damage it. The thirty-four sharp teeth allow it to bite off tough bites of almost anything, and when forage is short a camel can subsist on meats, skin and bones. Camels are ruminants, similar to cows, with three stomachs. They don't chew their food. They eat by swallowing their food whole and allowing it to be partially digested by the stomachs before being chewed as a cud later.
The history of the camel is just as interesting as the animal itself. Evolving in North America, the camel apparently crossed the land bridge over the Bering Strait during prehistoric times. After a time, camels became domesticated, and now the only wild camels are a small population of 500-700 animals in the Gobi desert. Asia and Africa are home to domesticated camels only. Camels were introduced to Australia and a few feral animals exist in the wilds there. An experiment introducing the camel to the North American desert in the 1800's was unsuccessful, although occasional reports of a camel sighting are received.
While having a reputation for being an unpleasant animal, the camel is actually a friendly animal. The grunting and groaning when rising are similar to a grunt from us upon lifting a heavy weight. A distressed camel will spit a noxious stream of stomach contents, but generally a camel is a pleasant, hard working, intelligent animal.
Throughout recorded history, the camel has been a helper to the desert dwellers. The camel assisted in providing transportation, shelter, fuel and food. The camel is able to carry loads as heavy as 900 pounds, although normally a camel will only carry a third of that. The camels hide provides tents for shelter, and the meat is said to be similar to veal, although a little tougher. The milk is actually more nutritious than cows milk, and is used fresh as a drink, as well as being made into cheese. The camel's dung can be used as a fuel with no drying necessary.
Many nomadic tribes used the camels in the past, but as technology improves fewer people of Egypt use the camel. Now, the main purpose of camels is for tourist rides and racing. Let us hope that the symbol of the desert traders continues on for many more generations. Gliding across the sands with that characteristic rocking gait, giving a romantic, exotic air to the pyramids of Egypt, the camel will forever be an important part of the way people imagine Egypt.