2-95. Mysteries of the Camel’s Hump

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If a camel with one hump is a Dromedary and a camel with two humps is a Bactrian, what do you call a camel with no humps? Humphrey, of course. (badum tish).

Camels fascinate people, and the reason is obvious: they have humps. And what’s inside those humps? Inside those humps lies the core of this episode.

For many years, people thought that camels stored water in their humps. You can still find references to this on the Internet. It makes sense, right? They live in the desert where there is very little water, and when they find water, they drink massive quantities of it. It has to go somewhere, so it’s reasonable to assume that it goes into the hump.

But ask any camel butcher (and yes, camel meat is becoming more common in the US), and they’ll tell you that the hump is full of not water, but fat.

Where water is scarce, food is scarce, so this also makes sense. Rather than store their fat evenly around their body like many species, camels simply store it all in one or more humps. There is speculation that this helps the animal shed heat as all that insulating fat is in one place, but since camels also live in cold deserts, there’s probably more to it than that. It’s also interesting to note that camelids that don’t have humps, such as llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, etc. live in areas where food and water are more plentiful.

So, there you have it. The question is answered and we can move on.

And no, of course we can’t because I wouldn’t be talking about this if that’s all there was to it.

In 1981, a study by the University of Singapore proposed the idea that the fat in a camel’s hump could be turned into water through a process known as palmitate oxidation. If you break down fat with added oxygen, water is produced. And not a little. With enough oxygen, the potential amount of water in a camel’s hump could be measured in gallons.

So see? Camel’s humps do store water! Case closed. Take that grade-school science teacher!

Well, not so fast.

According to Dr. Anders Lundquist of Lund University in Sweden, it’s true that breaking down fat can produce water, but camels couldn’t use this water to quench their thirst. It would require so much oxygen to release water from fat stores that the animals would dehydrate from moisture lost during breathing in the arid environment. Most biologists agree with this conclusion.

So far as we can tell at this point, camel humps store fat which is used simply as a fuel reserve. Now go apologize to your grade-school science teacher, because they were right.

But a question does remain: how do camels store water? The same way many other animals do: throughout their body tissues. Camels do have ways of conserving moisture, though. Their noses have the ability to reabsorb water from their breath, and their digestive system is very good at removing water from food. It’s so good, that camel urine has the consistency of motor oil and their droppings are completely dry.

Camel humps provide a good example of how curiosity works: ideas are constantly questioned in light of new evidence, and no answer is ever complete or final. And because I can’t think of a way to wrap this up, here are five camel facts that you may not be aware of:

  1. The genus for the giraffe is Camelopardalis, which translates to Leopard Camel.
  2. Australia has the highest population of camels. None of them are native.
  3. Annoyed camels don’t spit. They’re actually regurgitating on you.
  4. Their red blood cells are circular rather than ovoid. This helps blood flow better when the animal is dehydrated.
  5. Male camels have an organ in their throats called a dulla, which can be inflated to attract females. It looks very much like the camel is sticking its tongue out and blowing a raspberry.
A bactrian camel. (Photo by J. Patrick Fischer.)

A bactrian camel. (Photo by J. Patrick Fischer.)

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