The High-Tech Dromedary: Designed for the Desert

Did You Know…?

  • that camels don’t have to drink water as often as other animals or humans because they are designed to conserve water.
  • that camels have been known to go as long as 8 or 10 days without drinking.
  • that the camel’s nostrils have been designed to absorb moisture from the air that is being expelled from the lungs.
  • that camels will refuse to drink dirty water even if they are thirsty.
  • that camels are so valuable to Bedouins and other nomads that they are used as a medium of exchange, in place of money.
  • that it rains so seldom in the desert that when it does rain, camels are often frightened and try to run away.
  • that a camel’s temperature can rise as much as six degrees without hurting it. Such a temperature rise would likely be fatal to a human.
  • that because its body temperature rises with the temperature of the air, it does not perspire and so does not lose moisture.
  • that camels are noted for their bad tempers. If they take a dislike to someone, they may carry a grudge for years.
  • that a newborn camel takes 16 to 17 years to mature, and lives between 40 and 50 years.


Camels have roamed the desert areas of the world as wild animals for centuries. They are not found worldwide, but only in areas of India, Arabia, Eastern Africa, Asia and some in Spain. The family is large, consisting of many varieties of camels as well as the llama which inhabits the mountain areas of South America. The best known desert camel is the Dromedary with one hump, and short, light-colored hair, but the camels of colder climates, known as Bactrian camels, have two humps and very long dark brown hair. With their warm coat they are as comfortable in the snow of the mountains as the Dromedary is in the hot desert.

Camels were domesticated for use as beasts of burdens some four thousand years ago. Abraham lived in the desert country of Arabia, and we read in the Bible that his “servant took ten camels of the camels of his master and departed…for Mesopotamia, to the city of Nahor” to seek a wife for Isaac. “And he made his camels to kneel down without the city by a well of water.” Cruden’s Concordance confirms the use of camels in Bible times: “Camels were the usual riding animals in the East, as they were stronger than horses, and had much more endurance. As so much of the Bible world was either desert, or dry at certain seasons of the year, the peculiar adaptation of the camel to deserts was of unusual importance. Very frequently a man’s wealth was estimated in camels. They were bred for work or for swift riding, and their hair was used for clothing.”

Meet the Dromedary

I am sure you’re thinking that I’m not much to look at—with yellow teeth, a harelip, a hump, lots of calluses and corns, and sorrowful eyes fringed with long, languishing lashes. If ever there was an ungraceful looking creature, it is I, the Dromedary. I’ve heard some unkind human say that maybe I was made out of spare parts left over from some other animals. Well, I can’t help what they say. I’m not looking for love or pity. My Creator designed me to carry heavy loads across hot desert sand, and that is something I do very well.

Actually, I’m a strong runner. I’m able to keep up a gait of 10 miles per hour for a straight 10 hours—with a 500-pound pack on my back. Can you match that? Well, that’s pushing it a little. More comfortably, I like to trot at 8 to 10 miles an hour for 6 to 8 hours, and I can do that for 3 or 4 days in succession, right across hot desert sands. Yes, I was made for the desert!

I have many features in my favor, which make me really believe I was designed (creatures like me just don’t happen!) Did you ever wonder about the hump on my back? It’s not just a load to carry around, and it isn’t full of water. My hump—all 80 pounds of it—is my emergency food supply. When I am well fed, the hump is hard and big. When I’ve been many days without food, it begins to sag and look empty—it’s my Designer’s way of keeping me going strong when food and water are scarce. And it has an added advantage—instead of my fat being distributed over my entire body, like yours is, it’s all concentrated in one place, which means that my body can cool much more rapidly than yours can.

Food is often problematic in the desert. And even when available, it’s often scrubby, hard and harsh. But I’ve been designed for that, too—just about nothing can hurt the hard, horny inside of my mouth. I can crunch down dry, prickly cacti just as easily as soft, tender grass. And when the dry scrub is missing—well, I just trot on to the next oasis. And speaking of oases, I have phenomenal vision for spotting them. I can see an oasis many, many miles in advance—partly because my eyes are keen, and partly because I ride high.

Perhaps the factor that makes me best in the desert is my tolerance of dehydration. My blood, like yours, is normally 94 percent water. If you lose 5 percent of that moisture, you lose your eyesight. Lose 10 percent, and you lose your mind. Lose 12 percent, and you die. That’s not true with me. I can lose up to 40 percent of the water in my blood, and I’m still strong and feeling fine! Do you wonder that I think I’m designed for the desert (or the desert was designed for me)? Scientists say it’s something about my red blood cells being elongated, while yours are round. I don’t pretend to understand, I just know it works. I’ve been known to go 8 to 10 days without a drink, but then I look like a wreck. I lose more than 200 pounds, and my ribs show through my skin. I feel great; I look thin just because the billions of cells in my body have lost their water. They’re no longer fat, they’re flat.

But let me get to a water hole and drink, and my skinny body starts to change almost immediately. (I can guzzle as much as 20 gallons in 10 minutes!) Soon I’ve regained the 200 pounds I had lost and am ready to go again.

When it comes to conserving water, I’ve heard that I rank tops. Again I have to thank my mighty Designer. What are the secrets? Actually, I’m proud to say they’re built in. My Creator designed a special moisture-saving nose just for me. When I exhale, I don’t lose much moisture because my nose traps that warm, moist air from my lungs and tiny blood vessels in my nasal membranes absorb the moisture and take it right back into my blood stream. How’s that for recycling?

The process works because my nose is always cool. My nose may stay as much as 18 degrees cooler than the rest of my body. Even though I must breathe hot, desert air, the air is cooled as it goes through my wet nasal passages.

I save moisture, too, in another way—I do not perspire. When the air temperature rises, my body temperature rises too. And when it drops, my temperature drops. And all the while, I feel just fine, thanks to my great Creator.

And that isn’t all that’s special about my nose. My Designer knew I’d have to trot right through blowing sandstorms—they can strike the desert anytime. So He equipped me with special muscles in my nostrils that allow me to close the opening. This way I can keep blowing sand out of my nose but still get enough air to breathe. When the sand stops blowing, I can open my nostrils again and breathe freely.

You’ve probably wondered why I always walk around with my nose in the air. That’s because of the way my Creator made me, too. Not only do I have broad ridges of bone above my eyes that act as a sun visor, but I also have been given thick bushy eyebrows—so bushy that I have to hold my head high to peek out from under them. But I’m glad, because they shade my eyes even more from the bright desert sun—in addition to keeping out the sand. And if a grain of sand does get in my eye, my Designer has provided me with an extra eyelid that moves across my eye from side to side, something like a windshield wiper, to remove the sand. When I must travel in extremely bad blowing sand, I can keep this special protective lid completely closed—because it’s transparent! (Who could have thought up a better plan than that!)

My ears, too, are designed for the desert—they are filled with small hairs, which keep out most of the sand.

Most remarkable among my Creator’s inventions for me are my sand shoes (I mean my feet). Each foot has two long, bony toes with tough, leathery skin between. These webbed feet—some 10 inches across—are just what I need to keep me surefooted in soft, drifting sand.

What about getting down so my rider can load/unload me? mount/dismount? (At full height, I stand about 6 feet tall.) I simply kneel down. And here again, I’m all prepared, thanks to my great Designer. Now sand is abrasive, and without protection my joints would soon be worn thin. But my Creator has provided me with special knee pads to protect my front knee joints, and also the other parts of my body that contact the sand. When I was about 6 months old, these special horny pads started to grow. They don’t make me any more graceful, but I can fall on my knees time after time and not be hurt. More credit to my great Creator!

You probably have heard us camels called the “ships of the desert.” That’s because of the way we walk. Both legs on one side of my body move forward at the same time, elevating that side, then both legs on the other side move forward. This left-up right-up left-up motion makes my rider feel like he is in a rocking chair going sideways—it’s a little like a rough boat ride, and many a rider has been seasick until he gets used to it. Actually, it’s better when I trot. Then it’s simply a gentle jolt, first left, then right, which my riders usually like.

When I don’t like my rider, I know how to be very uncooperative. If he makes me nervous, I can turn my head around and look him square in the eye—even if he has ridden me many times, it makes him shudder.

I’m usually docile, but I have to admit that my disposition isn’t the best. I guess I enjoy being ornery, full of grunts and groans. If an insult becomes overwhelming, I’ll bite or kick. If I’m really irked or attacked, I have another defense—I can draw out the contents of my stomach and spew it on my enemy. But I don’t do that very often.

The desert people depend on me for just about everything. I’m not only their best form of transportation, I’m also their grocery store. Mrs. Dromedary gives very rich milk, perfect for making butter and cheese. I’ve seen them make butter many times: They simply put separated cream into a skin bag and hang it on my saddle at the beginning of a journey. After a day of jostling, the cream has become butter! I shed my thick fur coat once a year, and the nomads weave it into cloth. Sometimes young camels are used for beef, but I don’t like to talk about that.

Well, there’s lots more I could talk about, but I think I’ve said enough to convince you that I’m high-tech, and I’m designed for the desert. And I mean designed. Animals like me just don’t happen. They’re designed by Somebody who knows far, far more than I can imagine.

For Scientific Data in this Article we are indebted to:

  • The Book of Popular Science, volume 7, pp. 328ff
  • Marvels and Mysteries of Our Animal World, “Creatures of the Extreme,” by Arthur Weigall, published by the Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York, pp. 85ff.
  • Zoobooks, “Camels,” published by Wildlife Education, Ltd., October, 1989;
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition, 2:764ff., 17:1027ff., and 23:490ff.
  • Photos from