How Do Camels Survive In The Desert? (All Adaptations)

Camels’ unique physiology and adaptations allow them to survive, even in the harshest conditions of the desert. Camels have thick fur to protect them from the heat, fat hump to serve as food storage, they rarely sweat, and can go for weeks without water.

These are only a few reasons how camels survive in the desert, even without water. Let’s look at all of their desert adaptations in-depth.

how do camels survive in the desert

1. Thick Fur Protects Camels From The Desert Sun

Camels are covered in thick fur. This coat can reach a length of up to 14.9 inches (37.5cm) in some parts. Such length helps protect the animal from the blistering sun during the day, but also from the extremely low temperature during the night.

bactrian camels thick fur
Bactrian camels’ thick fur

During some of the hottest summer days in the desert, the temperature of the air can get to 117 °F (47 °C), while the temperature of the sand is around 40 °F (40 °C) higher. 

Thanks to their fur, sun rays cannot reach the camel’s skin and increase the animal’s temperature. Because the fur is so coarse, it prevents movement of the air, which reduces the heat transferred to the skin. [1]

During hot summer months, camels will develop a coat of lighter color; this reflects sun rays away and prevents sunburn. Camels will also have seasonal molting as part of their temperature adaptation strategies.  

Further reading: All about camel’s thick fur

2. Camels Fluctuate Their Daily Body Temperature

To survive the extreme desert conditions, camels will thermoregulate their body temperature throughout the day. During the hottest part of the day, they will increase their body temperature; during the night, when it’s colder, they will drop their body temperature.

camels at night
Camels at night

Camels are warm-blooded animals. This means they use their metabolism to produce heat and warm themselves. Their own body generates heat to keep them warm.

Scientists noted that when a camel is hydrated and well-fed, it will keep a relatively constant body temperature with small fluctuations of only 35.6 °F (2 °C). Camel’s body temperature will range between 96.8 °F and 102 °F (36-39 °C). This is characteristic of endothermic animals. [2]

When a camel is dehydrated, its body temperature can fluctuate by 43 °F (6.2 °C), and go between 93 °F and 105 °F (34–40.7 °C). This is a characteristic of heterothermic animals.

This 43°F (6.2 °C) difference in temperature allows the camel weighing 1100 lbs (500 kg) to save about 2500 kcal, which is around 5 liters of water (sweat) a day.

The process where a camel self-regulates its body temperature under the effect of the environment is called “adaptive heterothermy”.

Further reading: Camel’s unique body temperature regulation

3. Camels Barely Sweat

Camels will alter their body temperature to avoid sweating. Only when their body temperature reaches 105°F (40.7°C), camels start to sweat.

camel sweating
Camel sweating

Camels have a similar amount of sweat glands to humans, around 200 per 0.15 square inches (1 cm2) of the body.

And, similar to humans, in camels, water will evaporate and remove body heat from sweat glands. 

In camels, the sweat evaporates directly from the skin surface. This saves energy and cools the skin more effectively. Vaporization of 1g of water removes about 0.6 kcal of heat. [3]

Remember when you are out in the sun, and you instantly start sweating? That’s your body’s attempt to reduce its temperature. 

For camels, sweating means water loss. That is not something they prefer. 

So, to avoid sweating for as long as possible, they will increase their body temperature. The closer their body temperature to the outside one is, the lesser is the need to sweat and reduce heat.

Only when their body reaches a critical temperature of around 105°F (40.7°C), camels will sweat.

This is the temperature at which camels abandon saving water and sweat to remove excess heat from the body. 

They will also slightly increase their respiratory rate when exposed to extreme heat.

Further reading: Main reasons camels sweat so little

4. Camels Produce Little Urine To Save Water

Besides reducing the amount of sweat, camels will try to save water even further and excrete only a small amount of concentrated urine. Kidney has a key role there.

Depending on its hydration status, a camel will pee between 0.13 and 1.3 gallons per day (0.5 to 5 liters). The more dehydrated the camel is, the less it will pee, of course.

Camel’s kidneys excrete highly concentrated, salty, and syrupy urine. This saves water also allows the animal to tolerate high salt concentrations.

The long loops of Henle, which are 4-6 times longer than in cattle, have the function of concentrating urine and reducing its flow in camels.

When there is no water available, the camel’s kidneys will decrease the glomerular filtration rate and increase the tubular reabsorption of water to save as much fluid as possible. [4]

Sometimes, camels will even pee on their back legs to cool themselves down.

Further reading: How often do camels urinate

5. Camels Can Survive Losing Over 25% Of Their Weight In Water

Camels have developed such resilient bodies that they can survive water loss of about 25% of their body weight. For non-desert mammals, losses of greater than 15% are deadly.

Camels can survive such extreme water losses because of their oval-shaped blood cells.  

When you are dehydrated, your blood volume decreases, and your blood vessels shrink. Your blood gets thicker and blood cells start to stick to one another. This prevents blood from circulating properly through the body and makes it hard for you to function.

Camels have small and oval blood cells that do not stick to one another, which helps their blood circulate freely, and allow them to function properly, even if they are highly dehydrated. [5]

Further reading: How oval blood cells help camels cross the desert

6. Camels Drink Huge Amounts Of Water

Camels can go several weeks without water, some say even over a month. But when they find water, camels can drink obscene amounts, close to 53 gallons (200 liters) in three minutes.

bactrian camels drinking water
Bactrian camels drinking water

If humans drank that amount, they would die, as the blood cells could not tolerate such osmotic pressure. 

Camel’s blood cells can expand up to 240% of their original volume without rupturing. This allows it to drink a huge amount of water to recover from dehydration, 53 gallons (200 liters) in three minutes as we already mentioned.

Camel’s blood cells and their stomach structure allow them to store such an amount of liquid. 

Camel’s first stomach, the rumen, has water cells areas. The two parts of the rumen, the dorsal and ventral ruminal sacs work as water tank storage before the liquid gets shipped to the rest of the body. [6]

Their stomach and long intestine also absorb every drop of water from the foods they eat and produce small, hard, and dry fecal balls.

Further reading: How a camel’s stomach allows it to drink so much water

7. Camels Reduce Their Metabolic Rate

When severely dehydrated from harsh desert conditions, camels will reduce their metabolic activity. They will move and eat less.

Scientists discovered that under extremely high temperatures, dehydrated camels have a much lower metabolic rate than properly hydrated camels.

If temperatures exceed 116.6 degrees F (47°C), camels will inhibit the production of a hormone called thyroxine. This decreases water loss from breathing and reduces metabolic rate, which allows the camel to stay hydrated longer and cool down better. [7]

Further reading: Other major tactics camels use to cool down

8. Arteries And Veins Prevent Brain From Overheating

Venous and nasal cooling systems protect the camel’s brain from the desert heat. They help cool down the brain and prevent overheating and possible brain damage.

Camels have a huge surface of nasal passages. These passages cool a network of blood vessels called the “carotid rate”. 

Blood cooled in the nasal passages will be mixed with the arterial blood that is on its way to the brain and reduce its temperature by over 39.2°F (4 ºC).

This is known as the “counter current” effect, while the entire cooling process is referred to as “selective brain cooling” [8]

Further reading: Tactics that make camel brain cooling possible

9. Fat Humps Serve As Food And Water Storage

A well-developed camel might have a hump weighing as much as 80 pounds (35 kg). When the food is scarce, a camel will convert those fats to water and energy. This will allow the animal to survive for weeks and months without food.

Dromedary camels have one hump and live in desert areas of Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. They are more adapted to hot conditions.

The Bactrian camels live in the deserts of Central Asia, have two humps, and are more adapted to cold conditions. No camel with three humps exists, but a four-humped one did in the 1970s.

And contrary to a popular belief, camels do not store water in their hump.

Camel’s fatty hump, although it contains no water reservoir, provides the animal with a reserve of water and food. In the presence of oxygen, fat from the hump is metabolized and transformed into energy and water.

And when the animal goes for extended periods without food, its humps will become limp and fall on one side of the body.

limp Bactrian camel hump
Limp Bactrian camel hump

Hump also works as insulation against the heat. Because most of its fat is stored in one place instead of being equally distributed, the heat from the body will flow outward, evaporate easily over the rest of the body surface, and cool the camel down. [9]

Further reading: All you need to know about a four-hump camel

10. When No Food Is Available, Camels Will Eat Meat

When the food is scarce and the animal is hungry, a camel might resort to eating meat to survive.

Camels are herbivores and vegetarians most of the time and will eat different branches, leaves, grass, fruits, shrubs, and similar. However, in case of emergency, if they encounter a carcass in the desert, they will eat it.

It’s important to note that camels will not hunt other animals for their meat; they only eat meat, skin, and bones they find on the ground.

Meat is not their main food group; they do not receive too many nutritional benefits from it, and eating too much of it can be deadly to a camel. [10]

Further reading: Why camels eat meat

11. Long Legs Keep Their Body Away From Hot Sand

Camels have long legs because they keep them at a safe distance from the hot sand. They also help them walk further, save more energy, and reach vegetation that is high on trees.

camel long legs
Camel’s long legs

Depending on the species, age, and sex, they have different sizes of legs. 

Camels have between 54.3 and 59.8 inches long front legs (138-152 cm) and between 57 and 68.9 inches long back legs (145-175 cm). [11]

Their 4 long limbs keep their bodies and internal organs as far as possible from the burning desert sand. They allow the animals to cover larger distances in search of the next meal with little effort and energy expenditure, reach plants that are high in the air, and spot approaching predators.

Further reading: Why camels have extremely elongated limbs

12. Padded And Webbed Feet Prevent Camels From Sinking Into The Sand

Camel’s big and wide feet have a pad underneath to stop the animal from sinking into the always-shifting sand. They allow it to move easier and protect the bottom of its feet from getting burned. Such feet physiology also reduces the stress of walking placed on the legs and body.

camel wide padded feet
Camel’s wide padded feet

Camels are ungulates. This means that they walk on two of their toes, their third and fourth. 

Between those two toes is a webbing. Inside the feet, towards the heel, there is a thick ball of fat. 

Together with the webbing, it reduces the pressure a camel places on the ground, distributes its weight evenly, and allows it to move silently. 

Fatty pads or cushions at the back and front legs reduce and distribute the mechanical forces of walking. Like running shoes in humans, pads reduce pressure coming to the knee and other parts of the body. [12] 

Further reading: Camel’s big padded feet

13. Knees And Sternum Have Thick Calluses

To prevent the sand from increasing their body temperature when laying down, camels have thick callus tissue on their knees and sternum.

camel's calluses on legs and chest
Camel’s calluses on legs and chest

The tissue on the sternum is called the pedestal. When the animal is on the ground, the pedestal will keep its body away from the hot surface, prevent it from burning the body and increasing its temperature. It also allows cooling air to pass underneath this large beast. [13]

For example, in the Sahara, a sand temperature of 182.3 °F (83.5 °C) has been recorded in Port Sudan. Their calluses allow camels to survive being on desert sand without burning their skin and fur.

Camels will also huddle together to cool themselves as their body temperature is often less than that of the surrounding air.

Further reading: How does a camel cool itself in the desert

14.Their Long Necks Help Reach Tall Desert Trees

Camels prefer to eat leaves, branches, and twigs from the trees. Together with their legs, camels’ long necks help them reach food that is over 10 feet above the ground (3m).

camels long necks
Camels’ long necks

Camels have necks that are between 29.5 and 59.8 inches long (75-152cm), depending on the camel breed, age, and sex. [14]

Not only do they allow them to grab high vegetation but also to preserve energy and water when looking for food, keep a better balance when walking, and possibly notice approaching predators.

Further reading: Camel’s long neck

15. They Try To Avoid Predators

Camels today do not have many predators. Their greatest foes are mostly grey wolves and humans. 

Even though camels have a powerful kick and bite, to survive, they try to avoid predators. This is why a big portion of camels live in such uninhabitable areas like the deserts; not too many animals can survive there.

During a period of drought, camels can encounter grey wolves at the existing water point. Wild Bactrian camels have become endangered species because of wolf predation, hunting, illegal mining, and cross-breeding with domestic camels, with around 1000 estimated in existence today. [15]

Further reading: Most dangerous camel predators

16. Long Eyelashes Stop Sand From Getting Into Their Eyes

Camels have long eyelashes that help protect the eyes from the sun and the blowing desert sand.

Camel’s eyelashes are between 1.2 and 2 inches long (3-5cm), but some claim they can even reach 3.9 inches (10 cm) in length. 

They are organized in two rows and work as a barrier in preventing dust, insects, and other particles from entering the camel’s eyes.

They are made of keratin, the same material our nails and hair are made of. Scientists have measured that, to divert air and prevent it from drying the camel’s eye, the ideal length of the eyelashes should be ⅓ of the width of the eye. [16]

Further reading: Camel’s long eyelashes explained

17. Camels Have 3 Sets Of Eyelids 

To protect the eyes from sand, camels have developed 3 eyelids on each eye. An eyelid is a fold of skin that covers and protects the eye. We have 2 of them, for example.

camel eyelid
Camel’s eyelids

When a camel blinks, the upper and lower eyelid pass over the eyeball and spread tears to moisten the eye and protect it from external effects. They move from top to bottom, similar to human eyes.

What makes camels special is their third eyelid, which is also known as the nictitating membrane.

This third eyelid is a translucent membrane that allows the camel to keep its eyes open during a sandstorm. It works like a windshield wiper and removes any dust particle that got into the camel’s eyes. It is also considered that the third eyelid has a part in fighting different eye diseases or infections. [17

Further reading: Camel’s unique eyelids 

18. Bushy Eyebrows Keep Shade On The Eyes

Besides their long eyelashes, camels have bushy eyebrows. Together, they protect the camel’s eyes from the strong desert sun and keep them clean and clear. 

The eyebrows stick over the eyes to shade them and protect the animal’s vision from the intense brightness of the sun’s rays. [18]

camel eyebrows
Camel’s eyebrows

Further reading: Camel’s thick and bushy eyebrows

19. Furry Ears Stop Sand From Getting Inside 

Camels have a pair of small furry ears on the side of their heads. Because they are covered in fur, the ears prevent the sand from getting inside the animal.

camel hairy ears
Camel’s furry ears

Smaller ears are an adaptation to the desert climate; their size limits the amount of skin that is exposed to those cold nights and helps the camel with heat loss. 

They also have high acoustic power, they allow the animal to hear well and spot an approaching predator. [19]

Further reading: Camel’s cute furry ears

20. Flexible Nostrils Close During Sandstorms

Camel has nostrils that can open and close at will. In the case of a sandstorm, the camel will just shut them down completely so no sand particles enter the nose. 

camel nostrils
Camel’s nostrils

Several groups of strong facial muscles move the camel’s nostrils. Besides stopping dust particles, nostrils play a role in conserving water. 

When a camel gets dehydrated, its nasal surfaces help it save water by cooling the exhaled air during the night, and by extracting vapor from that exhaled air. [20]

Further reading: Camel’s nose 

21. Tough Mouth And Teeth Help Chew Prickly Desert Plants

Camels have extremely powerful teeth, tongues, thick lips, and leathery mouths that allow them to break and eat prickly plants like cactuses. Papillae, tough conic structures made of keratin, cover the insides of their mouths and tongues.

camel teeth
Camel’s strong teeth

Papillae allow the camel to grab, and chew cactuses with six-inch-long needles, without injuring the mouth. They orient the plant so it doesn’t hurt the insides of the mouth and make it slide nicely down the throat. [21]

In case no other plants are available, a prickly cactus is good enough for camels.

Further reading: Interesting facts about the mouth of a camel

22. Camels Will Eat 80% Of Available Plants In The Desert To Survive

Camels live in deserts where not too many plants are available. They aren’t picky animals either. That’s why they will eat almost 80% of available plants in an area – plants other animals wouldn’t even smell. 

camel eating branches
Camel browsing branches

Research done in Alice Springs in Australia showed that within a 124-mile radius (200km), camels will eat up to 82% of the available plants there. [22]

That’s an animal that will never say no to whatever food you make.

Further reading: How do camels find food to eat?

TL;DR – How Do Camels Survive In The Desert?

Camels can survive in the desert thanks to their amazing adaptations. Their fur keeps them cool, hump provides food and water, eyelashes keep the sand away, webbed feet enable walking on burning desert sand, and sweat glands help reduce heat.

No wonder they are referred to as ships of the desert and worth so much.

This concludes our article on “how do camels survive in the desert without water”, where we tried to explain briefly how camels are adapted to surviving in the desert. We hope you enjoyed it and found it informative.


References

[1] Abd Elgader, Marwa-Babiker, Mohamed Osman Eisa, and Ismail ElFagir. “Morphology and Morphometry of Raw Camel Hair of Some Sudanese Camel types in Kordofan States.” Nova Journal of Medical and Biological Sciences 6.1 (2017).

[2] Tibary, Ahmed, and Khalid El Allali. “Dromedary camel: A model of heat resistant livestock animal.” Theriogenology 154 (2020): 203-211.

[3] MR, Fath El-Bab, A. S. Abou-Elhamd, and M. Abd-Elkareem. “How the structure of the sweat glands of camel symphonizes their reliable function.” J. Anim. Health Prod 5.1 (2017): 19-23.

[4] Siebert, B. D., and W. V. Macfarlane. “Water turnover and renal function of dromedaries in the desert.” Physiological Zoology 44.4 (1971): 225-240.

[5] Soliman, Mostafa Kandil. “Functional anatomical adaptations of dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) and ecological evolutionary impacts in KSA.” International Conference on Plant, Marine and Environmental Sciences (PMES-2015) Jan. 2015.

[6] Allouch, Gamal. “Anatomical study of the water cells area in the dromedary camels rumen (Camelus dromedarius).” Nova J. Med. Biol. Sci 5 (2016): 1-4.

[7] Bornstein, S. “The ship of the desert. The dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius), a domesticated animal species well adapted to extreme conditions of aridness and heat.” Rangifer (1990): 231-236.

[8] Ouajd, Souilem, and Barhoumi Kamel. “Physiological particularities of dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) and experimental implications.” Scandinavian Journal of Laboratory Animal Sciences 36.1 (2009): 19-29.

[9] Schmidt-Nielsen, Knut. “The physiology of the camel.” Scientific American 201.6 (1959): 140-151.

[10] Can Herbivores Eat Meat, www.wildexplained.com

[11] Gazi, Mohsin A., Showkat ul Nabi, and Shakeel Ahmed. “Morphometric studies on adult double humped camel of Ladakh, India.” Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture (2013): 544-548.

[12] Clemente, Christofer J., et al. “Biomechanical insights into the role of foot pads during locomotion in camelid species.” Scientific reports 10.1 (2020): 1-12.

[13] Chase, Michael. “Camel Anatomy; More Than Just a Hump.” The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research 20.1 (2019): 5.

[14] Abdallah, H.R. & Faye, Bernard. (2012). Phenotypic classification of Saudi Arabian camel (Camelus dromedarius) by their body measurements. Emirates Journal of Food and Agriculture. 24. 272-280.

[15] Hare, John. “The wild Bactrian camel; a critically endangered species.” Endangered Species Update 21.1 (2004): 32-36.

[16] Amador, Guillermo J., et al. “Eyelashes divert airflow to protect the eye.” Journal of the Royal Society Interface 12.105 (2015): 20141294.

[17] Schlegel, T., H. Brehm, and W. M. Amselgruber. “IgA and secretory component (SC) in the third eyelid of domestic animals: a comparative study.” Veterinary ophthalmology 6.2 (2003): 157-161.

[18] Nevada Eye Physicians, www.nevadaeyephysicians.com

[19] Bai, Zhongtian, et al. “A functional anatomy of the external and middle ear of the bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus).” Journal of Camel Practice and Research 16.1 (2009): 115-120.

[20] Schmidt-Nielsen, Knut, R. C. Schroter, and A. Shkolnik. “Desaturation of exhaled air in camels.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. Biological Sciences 211.1184 (1981): 305-319.

[22] Box, Jayne Brim, et al. “The impact of feral camels (Camelus dromedarius) on woody vegetation in arid Australia.” The Rangeland Journal 38.2 (2016): 181-190.

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