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The dromedary, our desert ally

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

The dromedary is one of the animals best adapted to the desert. From head to toe through its hump, this makes it an ally of choice to accompany the man in the desert. Discover the incredible tricks of the dromedary to survive in the desert!



Camel, who are you?


Dromedary or camel?


The scientific name of camel is camelus dromedarius. And yes, the dromedary is actually… a camel! More specifically, the dromedary, also called the Arabian camel, and the (Bactrian) camel are part of the same genus, but have differences that make them two distinct species. The most famous of these differences is of course their number of humps: if the camel has two, the dromedary is satisfied with a single hump. The dromedary indeed lives in the hot deserts, in the Sahara or Arabia, while the camel undergoes the cold winters of the Asian deserts, in Mongolia or China for example.

It would therefore seem that from two bumps, representing two energy reserves, the dromedary has evolved into a simpler form with a single bump, sufficient and therefore more effective. Mark of this evolution, during its gestation the dromedary has two bumps which will merge before its birth! Just like between the horse and the donkey, a hybridization is possible between the dromedary and the camel: the hybrid is named Turkoman. Due to their distinct geographical areas, hybridization is only possible in farms.

The camel family, the camelids, also includes llamas and guanacos, alpacas and vicuñas. These American cousins are also adapted to arid conditions, those of the Andes Cordillera rather than deserts.


Camel in the Sahara
Camel in the steppes

Famous “vessel of the desert” alongside man for millennia


The dromedary is extremely well adapted to the desert. Its famous bump is a symbol of her adaptation. It is often thought of as a simple water supply, but the reality is more complex and much more interesting than that! The dromedary's hump is actually made up of fat, and therefore serves both as a water reserve and as an energy source. Water is not stored in liquid form directly, but can be recovered by the body when needed thanks to specific physiological reactions that do not exist in other animals. The dromedary can thus not drink for two weeks! On the other hand, when he finds a water point he is on the contrary able to drink in one go a quantity of water that would kill any other mammal...


Furthermore, grouping all the fat together in a single bump rather than distributing it more evenly also has advantages in terms of thermoregulation: the absence of fat under its skin allows it to cool itself more effectively at night. The viable internal temperatures of the dromedary are also impressive: where we humans must always maintain our temperature around 37°C, it is normal for a dromedary to see its internal temperature vary from 34°C to 42°C. depending on the outside temperature. This 8°C amplitude allows it to save a lot of energy, a major asset for survival in the desert.

Men made no mistake about it and very quickly sought to domesticate the dromedary, at least 3,000 years ago. The wild ancestor of the dromedary also disappeared following this domestication, unlike for example the wild guanaco which continues to exist alongside the domesticated llama.


The dromedary renders many services to the men. Its most famous use is undoubtedly its participation in the caravans that have crisscrossed the Sahara since antiquity. Capable of carrying 140 kg and traveling 50 km a day in the desert, camels made these caravans the only efficient way to transport goods from one end of Africa to the other for a long time. The appearance of maritime trade, then the introduction of motor vehicles, of course diminished the importance, size and frequency of these caravans. However, the dromedary is still used as a pack animal and remains one of the most reliable means of transport in the Sahara. And that's not all ! Very versatile, and the only animal to survive in the desert, the dromedary offers many possibilities. Its meat and the milk of females provide a welcome food source in the desert. Its adaptation to the desert could also be used for military purposes, as during Bonaparte's Egyptian campaign for example. And still today, unexpected uses are emerging, such as itinerant camel-back libraries or its use for garbage collection.


Finally, camels are also racing animals. Their name alone comes from the Greek dromeus, which means runner. Some breeds were selected more for their speed than their pack abilities, and large camel races continue to be held today, for example in the United Arab Emirates or Oman. These races are even listed on the intangible cultural heritage of Unesco.


Camel caravan Credits: Holger Reineccius

Camel and biomimicry

Man's lifelong companion, the dromedary is our ally also indirectly thanks to the innovations it inspires us.


The dromedary and its nose, a great thermoregulator

To survive in the extreme heat conditions of the Sahara, the dromedary has sophisticated thermal regulation and water preservation systems. In addition to his bump, his respiratory system also plays an important role. It takes advantage of the low night temperatures to store water in the mucus of its nose. When day comes with its very high temperatures, this water cools the air it inspires by evaporation. Heat transfers are favored by the very large surface of its nasal canals. This operation has inspired the development of an air conditioning system for buildings in the desert which can reduce the indoor temperature by 5°C and increase the indoor humidity by 20% during the day. This system can be used for greenhouses in the desert and allow cultivation where it seems impossible. This is just an example among others of what biomimicry can do for agriculture!


Camel's feet, or how not to get stuck in the sand

Have you ever tried driving on sand? Not easy not to get bogged down… And what if biomimicry gave a boost to automotive ?

The dromedary does not have hooves: its feet are more suited to loose sand than to surfaces that are too hard. Their concave shape, that is to say hollow inside, concentrates the sand towards the inside of the foot. This compacts the soft ground, making it easier to move and avoid sinking into it. Reproducing this concavity on tires makes it possible to design tires that are more efficient on sand and reduce the energy needed to advance in the desert.

camel foot

Camel nictitating membrane and sensor cleaning


Faced with sandstorms, the dromedary must protect his eyes so as not to lose his sight. One of these protections is its nictitating eyelid. This third eyelid provides effective protection against sand, and ensures eye cleaning that saves tears, and therefore water. Bioxegy was inspired by this to design a camera cleaning system using 10 times less water than usual systems! More details on this project carried out with a major French automotive supplier here.


Conclusion


Thanks to its incredible adaptation to the desert, the dromedary has been able to make itself indispensable for men for millennia. And thanks to biomimicry, this long love story is far from over!



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