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Bactrian Camel

Order Artiodactyla - Even-toed ungulates
Family Camelidae - camels and llamas

Scientific Name:  Camelus bactrianus


Bactrian camelDescription:  Up to 7 feet tall at the hump, weighs 1,000-1,800 pounds.  Has two humps which are fat reserves.  Shaggy coats.  Feet have thick soles, elastic pads that spread.  Bushy eyebrows, double rows of eyelashes, ears lined with hair, and special muscles in nose and lips can close tightly for long periods of time, all of which are adaptations to protect against sun and blowing sand.     


RangeRange:  Wild Bactrian camels can be found in Asia’s
Gobi Desert.


Habitat:  Rocky to mountainous deserts and grassy


Reproductive Habits:  Males, females and young camels are known respectively as stallions, mares, and calves.  Mate in February.  Mating takes place while the camels are sitting down, but the female gives birth in a standing position 13 months later.  A single young is born.  Within several days, it can walk perfectly with the ambling gait that is characteristic of the adult camel.  The females nurse  the young for 1 to 1 ½ years.  At 5 years of age they are full grown.  Bactrian camels form small groups of six to twenty animals that are led by a mature male.  Young males are driven away at 2 years to spend most of their time wandering alone or in bachelor herds; young females remain with their mothers.  Older males return to the herd during mating season but are often driven out by younger, rival males.


Diet in Wild:  Camels will forage in the morning and evening for grass, herbs, branches, juicy plants and leaves.


Diet in Zoo:  bromegrass, alfalfa hay and grain


General Information: The first camels appeared in North America 40-50 million years ago, descended from an animal the size of a small dog.  It is thought that the Bactrian camel was domesticated by man as early as 2,000 BC, presumed to be descendant’s of the feral camel.  It is named after the part of the region it inhabits, Bactria, on the Afghan-Soviet border. They migrated to Europe and Asia two million years ago and became nearly extinct in their original habitat.  In 1860, fifteen Bactrian camels were imported to the United States to haul salt across 200 miles of desert.  In its wild state, it is found only in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.  In a domesticated form, it is also found in Afghanistan, Turkey, the Soviet Union, Iran, and China.

The truly wild Bactrian camels living in the Gobi desert are specially adapted to cope with the extremes of climate found in this region.  They can tolerate variations in temperature ranging from -16°F to 120°F.  The thick, shaggy fur insulates the camel from the extremes of temperature, preventing it from losing warmth at night and slowing the warming process during the day.  However, they do not like wet conditions.  In the summer, they are most likely to be found in dry valleys and on nearby hills.  During the winter, they frequent dried up creek and stream beds and oases.

Known for its ability to go long periods without drinking, the camel does not store water in its hump or stomach. The humps are actually masses of fat that nourish the animal when food is scarce. The camel uses water with efficiency as most desert animals do.  It can drink up to 25 gallons at once, and suffer huge losses of water without ill effect.  The camel can tolerate great variations in its body temperature—from 86°F - 105°F—and therefore loses little water through perspiration.   After several days without food, the camel begins to use stored fat and the hump begins to shrink.  After eating and drinking again the hump will become firm.  They can go up to 10 months without drinking water as long as green vegetation and dew are available to them.  Camels are ruminant animals. 

The camel is an important source of wool, milk, meat, fuel (from manure), and beasts of burden in the desert.


Conservation Status:  Heavy hunting for meat and hides, and competition with humans and domestic animals for scarce desert water sources and pasture has led to its decline in the wild.  Only 600-900 Bactrian camels survive today.  Wild camels are strictly protected and listed on IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered.


National Geographic’s Book of Mammals, Vol. 1.  1991.  National Geographic Society.  114-117 pp.

Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia Vol. 13, Mammals IV.  1975.  Dr. Dr. h. c. Bernhard Grzimek.  Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.  138-144 pp.

Wildlife Fact File.  Group 1: Mammals.  Card #19.  1991.