We all remember the nursery school song about Alice the camel and her multiple humps. And even now, as I hum that childhood memory (and know that I will be insensately humming it for days to come) I think of how this, my first introduction to the animal, is far from the complexity and somewhat mystery of the camel.
Though today they are only found in Asia, Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, it is believed that the camel originally evolved in North America before crossing the temporary land bridge to the East. There are two surviving species of camel. The Bactrian camel, which is characterized by the two humps on its back, is an endangered species wild to Northeast China and Mongolia. The Dromedary camel, better known as the "Arabian camel", has only one hump on its back and is found in North African and the Middle East. All camels, however, are similar in their genetic make-up, and therefore, their anatomy.
A fully-grown adult camel stands 1.85m (6 ft) at the shoulder and 2.15m (7 ft) at the hump, and weighs up to 700kg (1542lbs). A camel's long, thin legs have powerful muscles which allow the animal to carry heavy loads over long distances. For this reason, the camel was used historically for the transport of cargo.
For many, the animal's mystique comes from its ability to endure extreme dehydration in the Arabian dessert. Many, mistakenly, believe that the camel's large humps are storehouses of water. This is, in fact, a myth. However, it stems from the fact that the fatty stores of the hump are converted to water in a complex metabolic reaction. Fat, as many of us are all too well aware, can be stored as an energy reserve. When needed (such as during starvation or extreme exertion) hormones trigger the release of triglycerides (the stored components of fat). Going through a complex process of reducing these fatty acids to carbon atoms, carbon to glucose and glucose to energy, water is produced as a byproduct. In fact for every gram of fat metabolized, one gram of water is produced. You might think of this as a fat-filled water bottle, which only creates water when you need it.
Camels, unlike most animals on the planet, can endure temperatures far too extreme for a human body. Evaporation of their sweat takes place not at the surface of their coat, but at the skin level, which acts as a very efficient cooling system.
Today, camels are traded and sold in public markets, they are widely used in races, and killed for meat, milk and leather.
The marvels of the camel are far more complex than explored briefly above. However, when it comes to the creatures of the desert, we know that Alice the Camel indeed does not have 5 humps "boom boom".
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