There are two species, or kinds, of camel. The dromedary has one hump on its back, and the bactrian has two humps. Dromedaries are found in the sandy deserts of the Middle East, while bactrian camels are found in the rocky Gobi desert of Mongolia and China.

Bactrian camels are the only truly wild camels, and they are now critically endangered with only about 1,000 left.

Some people say that camels are bad-tempered animals that spit and kick. However, they are actually quite good-tempered, patient and clever.

Shadows of camels crossing a desert sand dune. Camels are called 'ships of the desert' because they carry heavy loads, travelling where vehicles can't. Getty Images

Shadows of camels crossing a desert sand dune. Camels are called 'ships of the desert' because they carry heavy loads, travelling where vehicles can't. Getty Images

Body and appearance

Camels come in every shade of brown, from cream to almost black.

Adaptation means the changes that animals or plants have developed over many, many years so that they survive in their habitat. Camels' bodies have many adaptations.

The camel's appearance is distinctive, with its large hump or two humps on its back and its long neck and long legs. Does a camel store water in its hump? No, the hump is actually a store of fat so that when there is no water or food, it is absorbed into the camel's body to keep it going until food or water is available.

A camel's ears are small, but it can hear very well. The ears are lined with fur to keep out sand and dust. Its nostrils are slits that close up in a sandstorm to keep the sand from blowing into its nose.

Its eyes are large, protected by a double row of long curly eyelashes that also help keep out sand and dust. Thick eyebrows shield the eyes from the desert sun.

A bactrian camel beginning to moult. Getty Images

A bactrian camel beginning to moult. Getty Images

Camels have broad, flat, leathery feet with two toes on each foot. When the camel places its foot on the ground the pads spread, preventing the foot from sinking into the sand. When walking, the camel moves both feet on one side of its body, then both feet on the other, unlike most other four-legged animals.

Another adaptation to their habitat is that camels do not pant, and they perspire very little. Unlike other animals, a camel only sweats when the temperature is very high, so that it keeps moisture inside its body. They pass very little moisture from their bodies for that reason.

All camels moult (shed their fur) in spring and have grown a new coat by autumn. Their thick fur helps keep them warm at night: while daytime temperatures can be well over 40ºC, deserts are bitterly cold at night. The fur reflects the sunlight, which helps keep the animal cooler by day.

Thick patches of dry skin appear on a camel's chest and knee joints when the animal reaches five months of age. These leathery patches help support the animal's body weight when kneeling, resting and rising.

A fully-grown adult camel stands 1.85m at the shoulder and is about 2.15m high at the hump. They weigh over 800 kilograms.

A dromedary's natural habitat is the sandy deserts of the Middle East. Getty Images

A dromedary's natural habitat is the sandy deserts of the Middle East. Getty Images

Food

A camel can go 5-7 days with little or no food and water. The fat inside the hump is used to keep the animal going when there is no food or water. When they do find water after a long spell without it, their bodies can drink about 135 litres of water in just 15 minutes. Camels in the wild eat whatever they can find, including even leather, bones, seeds or dried leaves.

Life Cycle

After mating with a male (bull) camel, a female (cow) is pregnant for 13 months. A camel cow usually gives birth to a single calf. The calves are born without a hump and are able to walk within hours of birth. The calf drinks milk from its mother's body. Calves stay close to their mothers until they are about five years old. The normal life span of a camel is 40-50 years.

History

Camels were used for centuries to carry people and heavy loads across the deserts of Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

As well as being transport, the camel supplied the desert people with shade, milk, meat, wool and hides. Today they are also used for racing: camels can run fast over short distances.

A racing camel. See how a camel moves the two legs on one side of the body together . Getty Images

A racing camel. See how a camel moves the two legs on one side of the body together . Getty Images

 In Australia there is a large wild population of feral (once tame, now wild) camels because camels were brought to the country to help exploration of the desert areas and later used to transport goods and supplies to remote desert settlements. When roads and rail were able to be used, camels were set free and have become wild. Because those camels are disease-free, Australia now exports camels to the Middle East where they originally came from.

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Adaptation