The Bactrian Camel

Unlike the single-humped Dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius), Bactrian camels have two humps and are actually divided into two distinct species: the wild Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) and the domesticated Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus). I am going to be discussing both species of Bactrian camel throughout this post, but I will be mainly focusing on the wild species since they are considered critically endangered and desperately need our support.

Both species are large even-toed ungulates (hoofed mammals) native to the steppes of central Asia, yet the wild Bactrian camel is now restricted to small areas in Southern Mongolia and Northern China. Nearly 2 million domesticated Bactrian camels exist throughout Asia whilst there are only around 1,400 wild Bactrian camels left, subsequently they are considered the 8th most endangered large mammal in the world by the London Zoological Society.

Wild Bactrian Camel
A wild Bactrian camel taking a hike in the blistering heat.

Bactrian camels are brown/ beige in colour and have exceptionally tough mouths which can withstand spikes and thorns. Their adapted mouths allow them to ingest virtually any kind of vegetation, including many plants which other animals would not be able to digest. They swallow their food whole and then regurgitate and re-chew it to aid digestion. Occasionally, they are unable to find these nutrients and will instead feed on carcasses, skin and flesh. Starving individuals have even been known to eat rope, leather, sandals and tents. When you live in such an unforgiving environment with very little sustenance, you can’t be a picky eater.

Originally, wild Bactrian camels were thought to just be feral populations of their domesticated ancestors, but recent genetic studies have proven they are two genetically distinct species. Although there are feral populations of Camelus bactrianus, they are not considered wild meaning Camelus ferus is actually the only species of camel which is truly wild.

Bactrian Camel 2
A domesticated Bactrian camel in its winter coat; very similar to its wild relatives.

Both species are very similar in appearance and behaviour, as well as sharing a range of unique adaptations. As you will probably know, camels use their humps as fat reserves which is an ingenious way to survive the harsh desert life. The fat can be converted into water and energy when sustenance is scarce meaning these camels can go without food or water for weeks. Furthermore, by concentrating their fat in their humps, they have less insulating fat spread throughout their body and can thus lose heat more easily, which is vital for the Bactrian camel where temperatures can reach up to 40℃ in the summer. During winter months however, temperatures can fall to nearly -30℃ in certain areas of Central Asia so Bactrian camels develop a thick winter coat that keeps the camel warm and also protects them from sunburn. This shaggy coat is quickly shed after winter as to not overheat. Both species of Bactrian camel are also able to eat snow to obtain water, an adaptation which very few mammals possess. All of these adaptations, and many more, make the Bactrian camel a complete evolutionary masterpiece.

Wild Bactrian Camel 2
Another wild Bactrian camel enjoying the cool breeze.

Unfortunately, the wild Bactrian camel is considered critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and with a 13 month gestation period, it will take some time to rebuild their population. Currently, approximately 600 wild Bactrian camels live in the Gobi desert in northwest China and around 800 in the Mongolian desert. The main threat to their species is hunting but nature reserves have been established to conserve their dramatically small population in the hopes they will one day roam throughout the deserts of Central Asia.

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