In the far reaches of our minds, most of us can probably recall learning at one time that some camels have two humps and others just one. But darn if we can remember which is which.
An easy way to remember is this: Bactrian begins with B, which, on its side, looks like two humps. Dromedary begins with D, which looks like one hump on its side. Now that we have that straight, what else is there to know about these different types of camels?
While there are millions of living domesticated Bactrian and dromedary camels, only the Bactrian camel still exists in the wild, and that type is increasingly endangered. Wild and domestic Bactrian camels readily interbreed, but physically they are quite different. Wild Bactrians have smaller, more slender bodies and smaller, pyramid-shaped humps versus the larger, more irregular humps of the domestic species.
For many practical reasons, humans domesticated camels more than 3,000 years ago. Camels are useful for wool, milk, meat, leather and dung (used for fuel). In addition, their ability to carry heavy loads in harsh climates with little water makes them very useful.
While dromedaries are primarily suited for hot climates, Bactrians are very resilient in harsh climates on both extremes and at high altitudes, which is why they have been prized in their native habitats of inner Asia (China and Mongolia) since ancient times. They were key to enabling travel of caravans on the Silk Road in 220 B.C. and continue to be valuable today.
The key to camels’ resilience is their efficiency in existing on very little water when necessary. Though not ideal, camels can go for months without drinking. And when water is available, they can drink more than 30 gallons at a time. Contrary to popular belief, their humps are full of fat, not water. The level of hydration does affect the humps, though. The humps droop as hydration levels dip and are firmer when the camel is fully hydrated.
Wild Bactrian camels have the unique ability to drink saltwater slush — something no other mammal is able to do. Camels produce dry feces and little urine to conserve water and allow their body temperature to fluctuate, which reduces the need to sweat.
At the Pueblo Zoo, guests can compare the two types themselves. The female dromedary, Cleo (short for Cleopatra), will turn 8 on Feb. 22 and has been at the zoo since 2009. She welcomed Presley, a young male Bactrian last year. Born June 4, 2014, he is younger and smaller, but growing steadily.