Last Updated on August 16, 2022

The camel is one of the most interesting animals in the world, thanks to its ability to store water and survive in the desert without drinking for weeks at a time. The features that allow it to adapt and survive in the desert are also those that make it so unusual – some would say weird – but definitely iconic.

Every aspect of the camel is designed to increase its survival chances in their habitat which is notoriously scarce, hostile, with very dry hot days and cold nights, and subject to extreme weather. From its skinny legs to long eylashes to the distinctive hump, every feature of the camel is designed for survival in the desert, and nothing is left to chance.

Camels have wide flat feet, long skinny legs and necks, and large thick humps,
Camels have wide flat feet, long skinny legs and necks, and large thick humps,

How do camels adapt to the desert environment?

Overall, there are a few physical adaptations camels had to go through evolutionarily in order to adapt to the harsh conditions of the desert. These adaptations include:

  • Long eyelashes to remove sand
  • Nostrils that they can shut entirely to protect themselves from sandstorms
  • Long legs that keeps the body away from hot sand, with large, flat feet for stability
  • Thick pads of skin and fur on knees which allows them to sit on scorching hot sand
  • Light fur which allows them to regulate body temperature and minimizes sweating
  • Ability to drink large amounts of water in just a few minutes
  • Ability to store large amounts of fat in their hump which they can turn into food and water

What do camels eat in the desert?

Camels are ruminant herbivores, which means their diet is based on plant foods. Domesticated species of camel that coexist with humans tend to have a more varied diet, however the wild camel must adapt to a more restricted diet due to the scarce environment in which it lives.

The main source of food for camels in the desert is a very thorny shrub called Alhagi maurorum, or Caspian manna, which is a type of legume rich in protein. Despite its thorns, camels have no problem eating it and their thick lips prevent them from getting stung.

There are other plants in the desert that camels are used to eating; these animals can feed on dry grass or plants with a high salt content, and in general will ingest any greens they can find in the desert without problems.

Camel mom and calf close up.
Camel close up.

Where do camels store water?

There is a common misconception that camels fill their humps with water, but this is not true. Camels do not store water, their humps are actually full of fat. Up to 80 pounds of fat can be stored in the hump, which the camel is able to metabolize to produce food, water and energy.

The camel’s ability to feed itself is another of the secrets of its survival in the desert. In just 15 minutes, a camel can drink up to 140 liters of water. From this moment on, it will begin to produce fat again. And even in cases where it does not have immediate access to water, its fat storage allows it to survive dehydration even if it loses up to 25-30% of its weight.

How long can a camel survive without water?

The amount of time a camel can withstand without drinking depends highly on the season. In winter, a camel can go as long as 50 days without drinking anything at all. In the summer a camel can only go from 5 to 10 days without drinking under the scorching desert heat. These figures vary depending on the physical activity of the animal and the energy it is consuming.

A camel feeling faboulous
The camel, also known as “sheep of the desert”

Camel FAQs

Why do camels have humps?

Contrary to popular belief, camels do not use their humps to store water. They need their humps to store fat and cartilage which they can use as a source of energy. Because of the harshness of the desert a camel can go weeks without eating and needs to rely on their fat storage to produce energy until they eat again.

How many humps does a camel have?

The majority of camels has only one hump, but some species have two. The one-humped dromedary makes up for 94% of the global camel population, whereas the two-humped Bactrian camel only accounts for 6%. If you consider dromedaries and camels as separate animals, then the dromedary only has one hump while the camel has two.

What sound does a camel make?

The sound a camel makes is called a grunt. Camels make lots of snuffly noises that are different from those of any other animals, some describe the sound of a camel as similar to that of Chewbacca from the Star Wars movies.

Do camels spit?

Camels spit when they are annoyed or as a defence mechanism. Because they need to conserve water, they don’t really spit saliva but rather “cud”, that is, partially digested food. A camel spitting is similar to them throwing up and a very unpleasant experience with a foul smell.

Are camels dangerous?

Camels are docile by nature and have no predatory instincts, but they are not to be messed with. As a matter of fact, camels can be dangerous and even attack and kill humans. They are known to have a bit of an attitude, and can get aggressive when annoyed or threatened, especially mothers with calves.

Camels are very large and heavy, they have powerful bites, they will spit and will even sit on you with the intention to hurt you. Always be careful when you handle adult camels.

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