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Camels – Nature’s Ultimate Survivors

Jun 11, 2013

Bactrian Camels Handle Whatever Mother Nature Throws at Them

Look beyond the goofy grins and gangly gaits of the zoo’s Bactrian camels and you might be surprised to find some serious survival skills. Adapted to live in brutal conditions, they can take almost anything Mother Nature throws at them – bitter cold, scorching heat and long periods without water or food.

Wild Bactrian camels live in the rocky deserts of China and Mongolia where temperatures can dip to -29 C in the winter and soar to 49 C in the summer, so Calgary’s sometimes unpredictable weather isn’t a problem for the zoo’s herd. “We have a shelter behind the elephant building where all three of our camels can get out of the wind or sun, but they don’t choose to use it very often,” explains zookeeper Val Edwards. 

Unlike their one-humped Arabian cousins, called dromedaries, Bactrian camels grow a thick, shaggy coat for the winter, then shed it in May or June when temperatures rise. Bushy eyebrows, a double row of extra-long eyelashes, hair-lined ears and the ability to tightly close their nostrils and lips combine to protect Bactrian camels from harsh winds, blowing snow and swirling sand.

In the wild, camels can go several months without eating and more than a week without water.

And who can forget their trademark double humps? Once thought to store water, camels’ humps actually store excess fat that is converted to energy when food is scarce. “Even though they don’t need to eat and drink on a daily basis, camels at the zoo are offered food and water every day,” explains Val. “In the wild, they can go several months without eating and more than a week without water.” Camels use the moisture they get very carefully. Their kidneys are so efficient their urine comes out as thick syrup and their dung is dry enough to fuel fires. In the absence of fresh water, wild Bactrian camels have even adapted to drink salt-water slush with a higher salt content than seawater.

Living in such a harsh desert environment means wild camels spend much of their time foraging for short grasses, thorns and salty plants to eat. Each half of their split upper lip moves independently so they can get close to the ground and grasp even the shortest vegetation. At the zoo, they eat hay and use their lips to peel the bark from caragana branches and large logs. “We also encourage foraging behaviour by providing enrichment items like carrot-filled snowmen or barrel puzzle feeders filled with yams,” explains Val.

Although domesticated Bactrian camels are relatively common, wild Bactrian camels are among the most endangered large mammals on the planet. Three separate wild populations remain – two in China and one in Mongolia – totalling an estimated 1000 animals. Bactrian camels are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN due to poaching and habitat loss.