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Camels - Ships of the Desert

A camel stands from 1.8 to just over 2 metres tall at the shoulders, and weighs from 250 to 680 kilograms. Its rope like tail is over 50 centimetres long. Camels seem larger than they are because of their thick, woolly fur, which may be all shades of brown, from nearly white to almost black. An Arabian camel's fur is short and helps protect its body from the heat. A Bactrian camel's fur is longer. It may grow about 25 centimetres long on the animal's head, neck, and humps.

All camels lose their fur in spring and grow a new coat. A camel looks sleek and slender for several weeks after losing its coat, but a thick coat of new fur grows by autumn.

Camels have callus like bare spots on their chests and on their leg joints. These spots look as though the hair has been rubbed off, but they are natural and not signs of wear. Even young camels have them. Thick, leathery skin grows there and becomes tough when the animal is about five months old.

Camels eyes are well protected by long eye lashes and thick eye brows A camel has large eyes on the sides of its head. Each eye is protected by long, curly eyelashes that keep out sand. In the daytime, when the sun is high, the eyes do not allow excessive light in. Glands supply the eyes with a great deal of water to keep them moist. Thick eyebrows shield the eyes from the desert sun.

The camel's small, rounded ears are located far back on its head. The ears are covered with hair, even on the inside. The hair helps keep out sand or dust that might blow into the animal's ears. A camel can hear well, but, like the donkey, it often pays no attention when given a command.

The camel has a large mouth and 34 strong, sharp teeth. It can use the teeth as weapons. A camel owner may cover the animal's mouth with a muzzle to keep it from biting. A working camel cannot wear a bit and bridle, as a horse does, because its mouth must be free to chew cud (regurgitated food). Instead, a rope for leading the animal is fastened through a hole near the camel's nose.

The hump of a camel is mostly a lump of fat. Bands of strong tissue hold pads of fat together, forming the hump above the backbone. The hump of a healthy, well-fed camel may weigh 35 kilograms or more.

Most kinds of animals store fat in their bodies, but only camels keep most of their fat in a hump. If food is hard to find, the fat in the hump provides energy for the animal. If a camel is starving, its hump shrinks. The hump may even slip off the animal's back and hang down on its side. After the camel has had a few weeks' rest and food, its hump becomes firm and plump again. The hump is not a storage place for water, as many people believe.

Camels have long, strong legs. Powerful muscles in the upper part of the legs allow the animals to carry heavy loads for long distances. A camel can carry as much as 450 kilograms, but the usual load weighs about 150 kilograms. While working, the animals typically travel about 40 kilometres a day, at a speed of 5 kilometres an hour.

Camels usually walk, especially if it is hot, but when they must go faster they either gallop or pace. The pace is a medium-speed movement in which both legs on the same side rise and fall together. This leg action produces a swaying, rocking motion that makes some riders "seasick." Camels are sometimes called "ships of the desert."

The tough, leathery skin pads on a camel's legs act as cushions when the animal kneels to rest. The camel bends its front legs and drops to its knees. Then it folds its hind legs and sinks to the ground. To get up, the camel straightens its hind legs and then jerks up its front legs. A camel can lie down and get up again even with a heavy load on its back.

Camels have two toes on each foot. A hoof that looks like a toenail grows at the front of each toe. Cows, horses, and many other animals walk on their hoofs. But a camel walks on a broad pad that connects its two long toes. This cushion like pad spreads when the camel places its foot on the ground. The pad supports the animal on loose sand in much the same way that a snowshoe helps a person walk on snow. The camel's cushioned feet make almost no sound when the animal walks or runs.

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