Camels Originated in North America, Probably Roamed Hollywood

Workers digging a new freeway in San Diego, California discovered 15-million-year-old camel fossils.
Marcia Wendorf

What is more evocative of the Arabian desert than the image of a camel? Picture long caravans snaking their way through the sand dunes. You might be surprised then to know that camels didn't originate in the Arabian peninsula, or in the Middle East for that matter. They originated in ... North America. 

In June 2020, The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper reported the finding of a 15-million-year-old camel fossil that was unearthed during a road construction project in San Diego, California.

Where camels got their start

The first camels lived in North America 40 to 50 million years ago. It wasn't until 3 to 5 million years ago that North American camels spread to South America via the newly-formed Isthmus of Panama. They then spread to Asia and on to the Middle East via the Bering land bridge that connected what is now Alaska to Russia.


Fossils of a camel that stood 9-feet-tall (2.7 m) were found on Canada's Ellesmere Island in 2006. The last North American camel disappeared, along with mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, the short-faced bear, and sabertooth cats, around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, which corresponds to the spread of the first indigenous people in North America.

An extinct species of camel lived in western North America until the end of the Pleistocene Era, which is approximately 11,000 years ago. Other animals who are part of the camelid family include what are known as "New World" camelids, and they include the llama, alpaca, guanaco, and vicuna.

Camel caravan in Egypt
Camel caravan in Egypt, Source: Ippolito Caffi/Wikimedia Commons

Old World and New World camels diverged from one another around 11-million-years ago, however, a connection remains between them because they can breed with one another. The combination of a camel and a llama is called a cama. In size, it is halfway between a camel and a llama, and it lacks a hump. Like a mule, which is a cross between a donkey and a horse, camas are sterile.

Humans first domesticated Dromedary, or desert camels, in southern Arabia and Somalia around 3000 BCE. Bactrian camels were domesticated in central Asia around 2500 BCE.

Today, only three species, or types of camels, survive:

Name humps Size at hump Weight % of pop. Location found
Dromedary 1 7' (2.15 m)  660 to 1,320 lbs. (300 to 600 kg) 94% Middle East, Horn of Africa and South Asia
Bactrian 2 8' (2.5 m)  660 to 2,200 lbs. (300 - 1,000 kg) 6% Central Asia, former region of Bactria
Wild Bactrian 2 8' (2.5 m) 660 to 2,200 lbs. (300 - 1,000 kg) Critically endangered, only 1400 left Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts in China and Mongolia

According to the fossil record, the Bactrian camel diverged from the Dromedary, or Arabian Camel, about 1-million-years ago. Most camels today are domesticated, however, feral populations exist in Australia, India, and Kazakhstan. The only truly wild camels are the Wild Bactrian Camels, which now live in the Gobi Desert.

Wild Bactrian Camel
Wild Bactrian Camel, Source: John Hill/Wikimedia Commons

An extraordinary animal

Contrary to popular belief, camels do not store water in their humps. Instead, the humps are comprised of fatty tissue, which is where a camel stores its fat rather than all over its body. This helps keep it cool in hot weather.

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When the fatty tissue in the humps is metabolized, 1 gram of water is produced for every gram of fat metabolized, and this water then evaporates from the camel's lungs during respiration.

Camels can go for extraordinarily long periods of time without water. The Dromedary Camel can go 10 days between drinks, losing up to 30% of its body mass from dehydration. Camels lose only 1/3 gallon (1.3 liters) of water per day, while other livestock lose 5 to 10 gallons (20 to 40 liters) per day.

Once it does take a drink, a camel can drink up to 53 gallons (200 L) at one time. Camels don't have hooves, instead their feet are made of a leathery pad with two toes at the front. This helps them walk on sand without sinking in, making deserts ideal camel habitats.

Camels' body temperature fluctuates between 93 degrees F (35 degrees C) at dawn and 104 degrees F (40 degrees C) at sunset. During the night, their body temperature cools down.

Camels do sweat, and they can tolerate sweating up to 25% of their body weight. Other mammals, including human beings, suffer cardiac failure when sweating 12% - 14% of their body weight.

Camels' kidneys and intestines are specially adapted to conserve water. Their urine is not liquid, but a thick syrup, and their feces are so dry that they can be immediately picked up and burned as fuel in a fire.

Rather than making them hot, camels' thick coats insulate them from the heat radiated by the desert sand. During the summer, a camel's coat becomes lighter so that it better reflects the light of the sun. Dromedary Camels have a thick pad over their sternum, or breast bone, that protects them from the hot ground when they lie down.

The mouths of camels are covered with a thick, leathery lining that allows them to chew thorny desert plants. Camels make very good use of any moisture in the green herbage they eat. During sandstorms, camels can close their nostrils, and they have long eyelashes and ear hairs to help keep the sand out.

Another unique adaptation of camels is that unlike other mammals, their red blood cells are oval-shaped rather than circular. This makes it easier for the red blood cells to flow when the animal is dehydrated.

In short bursts, camels can run at 40 mph (65 km/h), and over long distances, they can maintain speeds of up to 25 mph (40 km/h).

The immune system of camels differs from that of other mammals, and their special antibodies were only discovered in 1993. Recently, Smithsonian Magazine reported that scientists have been looking into camelids in an attempt to find a cure for COVID-19.

Camelids are also unusual because they mate in a sitting position.

In the Frank Herbert 1965 science fiction classic, Dune, the Fremen people of the desert planet Arrakis wear "still suits" which preserve the water vapor from exhalation. Herbert might have gotten that idea from camels because the water vapor they exhale is trapped in their nostrils, then reabsorbed into their body.

Camel products

For millennia, camel hair has been used in making tents, yurts, clothing, and bedding. The coarser outer guard hairs are felted to create waterproof coats, and the inner down hair is spun into yarn and used in knitting or crocheting.

The West discovered camel hair during the 17th-century, and it was often mixed with wool in garments. For hundreds of years, camel hair coats have been considered the height of luxury.

Camel milk is commonly made into yogurt and ice cream, and it can be made into butter if it is soured first. It wasn't until the 1990s that a method for turning camel milk into cheese was discovered.

Dromedary Camels are used for meat, and the hump is considered a particular delicacy.

Camels at war

For thousands of years, camels have been used by various militaries during wars in Africa, the Middle East, and India. The Achaemenid Persians used camels to great effect since the horses of their opponents were terrified by the scent of camels.

During the mid-1800s, the U.S. Army established a Camel Corps, stationed at the Benicia Arsenal in Benicia, California. The corps was abandoned during the Civil War, and its camels wandered away into the southern California desert.

In 1912, the French created a Camel Corps for use in the Sahara, and France's Free French Camel Corps fought during World War II. The British created the Imperial Camel Corps in 1916, and they were used in the Sinai peninsula and in what is now Israel.

Imperial Camel Corps
Imperial Camel Corps, Source: Harold Power/Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, Romanian forces fighting in the Caucasian region were forced to use camels for the transport of both men and goods because there was a shortage of trucks. The camels proved so successful that many of them ended up in Berlin.

Camels down under

During the 19th-century colonization of Australia, camels were imported to help with transport and construction. Once they were no longer needed, they were released into the outback where they happily procreated and procreated, and ...

Camels in Australia
Camels in Australia, Source: Dr-Victor-von-Doom/Wikimedia Commons

By 2008, Australia's feral camels numbered one million, and the size of the herd was projected to double every 8 to 10 years. In 2009, the Australian government instituted a culling operating which reduced the herd to about 300,000 animals.

It's still remarkable to think that at one time, camels did indeed roam Hollywood.

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