Australian Feral Camel What is a Feral Camel?

Camels in Australia, usually referred to as Feral Camels, are wild camels that originated from ordinary domesticated animals that escaped from their human environment and became wild. They are basically the same as common everyday camels —The key difference is that they are wild.

There are two species of feral camels in Australia. These are Dromedary camels (one hump) which are most prevalent, and Bactrian camels (two humps) which are found less frequently. Both camels are very similar and can interbreed. This web-page is focused on the dromedary camel.

There were no camels in Australia prior to their importation into Australia commencing in 1840. Their numbers, in the wild, have increased exponentially since then, causing significant ecological damage to the Australian Outback.

Related: Why Feral Camels Exist in Australia & Their Impact on Australia


Feral Camel - Description & Characteristics What Does a Camel Look Like?

General Description

Dromedary camels are predominately brown in colour but can range from black to almost white. Camel fur (usually referred to as ‘camel hair’) is long and concentrated on the throat, shoulders and the hump. This thick coat of hair protects these animals from the sun and the extremes of heat and cold experienced in the dessert.

Size

Camel Height is Measure at the Shoulders

Even though the top of a camel’s hump is the highest point of the animal's body, their height is measured at the shoulders. This is because the height of the hump varies, going up and down depending on its store of fat.

Adult males Dromedary camels are about 1.8 to 2 m tall at the shoulder and weigh approximately 400 to 600 kg. Females are about 1.7 to 1.9 m at the shoulders and weigh 300 to 540 kg.

Camel’s Eyes, Nose and Ears

Camels have long, curved necks. They have large eyes with excellent vision which allows them to spot danger 4-4 kilometers away. The eyes sit below prominent eyebrow ridges and bushy eyebrows that protect its eyes from the sun. It has long double-layered eyelashes too to keep the sun and sand out of its eyes. Besides its outer eyelids, the camel also has an inner eyelid composed of a thin membrane that allows it to see during a sandstorm. Camels have a good sense of smell and can close their nostrils to keep out blowing sand. Its nose has special nasal cavities to moisten air on way in, trap moisture going out. Their ears are small and rounded with hair inside and out to prevent sand from entering its ears.

Camel’s Mouth and Spitting

Camels have large, tough prehensile lips, with the upper lip split into two halves which enables them to pick at dry and thorny desert vegetation. Their incisors and canine teeth grow throughout life.

Male camels foam at the mouth when excited and have a soft palate (upper part of the inside of the mouth) that they can inflate to produce a deep pink sac which dangles from one side of the mouth and is used to attract females during the mating season. It is often mistaken for the animal’s tongue. Camels also spit when provoked. Actually they aren't true ‘spitters’ like humans. Instead they are more ‘flingers’. A camel’s spit is not composed of only saliva but instead the camel burps up some of its stomach contents into its mouth, mixes it with saliva, and then flings mixture from its flappy lips at its opponent. This foul smelling sticky concoction is definitely not something you want to be covered in.

The Camel’s Hump

The dromedary camel has a single hump on top of its back. Contrary to popular belief, the camel does not store water in its hump. Instead this hump is composed of fibrous tissue and fat. It is a a store of energy rather than water. The size of the hump varies depending on the fat stored in it. The hump is at least 20 cm high and when fully extended can store up to 36kgs of fat which the camel can break down into water and energy when required. The hump nearly disappears when the fat store is used up and the animal is starving.

Camel – Walking and Running

The dromedary camel has long, powerful legs with large two-toed feet which have soft thick and flexible footpads. These enable them to easily walk on soft sand and gravel but they provide little traction on slippery and muddy surfaces. Unlike most animals, camels move both legs on one side of the body at the same time (lift both left legs - lift both right legs, rather than one left and one right leg like most other animals). The walking stride is long and slow, with the body supported for much of each stride on the grounded legs on one side of the body. Camels can run at 40 kph for extended periods of time and can sprint at 67 kph for short periods.

Other Special Adaptations

• Camels can endure temperatures from -29°C to over 49°C.
• Their long legs keep their bodies elevated further away from the hot ground to reduce overheating.
• They can adjust their body temperature a range of 34-40°C . By doing this the animal can minimise sweating and therefore conserve body fluids.
• Camels only sweat when their body temperature reaches 41-42°C.
• The camel's red blood cells are oval, which allow them to flow better even when the animal is in a dehydrated state.
• It can an tolerate loss of water equal to over 30% of body weight (a human can only survive a 15% loss)
• Its urine is highly concentrated and is its dung is dry an other adaptation to save water.


Camel Diet What Does a Feral Camel Eat?

Camels are herbivores that eat almost any available plant. They are definitely not picky about what plants they eat. They graze on grasses and forbs and browse on shrubs and trees to a height of about 3.5 m. While browsing, they use their thick prehensile lips to grasp their food, breaking off branches or stripping off leaves in one movement. Camels have an interesting foraging characteristic where they tend to eat only a few leaves from each plant. This type of feeding behaviour is definitely beneficial to the plant, as it reduces the stress on the plant and also leaves sufficient sustenance other herbivores. This foraging behaviour is believed to have evolved to prevent killing its food source by over-grazing and also to reduce their intake of any particular plant toxin by foraging on the widest variety of foliage.

Camels feed for 6-8 hours each day Being ruminants, like cows they spend another 6-8 hours each day ruminating (chewing the cud). They do this by regurgitate food from their stomach to chew it again. Where the food they consume is high in water content, camels don’t need to drink water.

When food and water become scarce, the camel extracts energy and water from fat stored in its hump. The longer a camel goes without eating or drinking, the more visibly deflated its hump becomes. A camel can survive a week or so without water, and it can last for several months without food. A camel can drink as much as 145 litres of water in one drinking session, at a rate of about 10 litres per minute.


Reason for Bringing Camels to Australia Why Camels were Introduced to Australia

In the early 1800s no European had ventured into the vast interior of the Australian continent. Many explorers had tried but all of their attempts had ended in failure.

One of the main reasons for their failure was the lack of a suitable pack animal capable of handling the dry, rough often sandy terrain of the Australian Outback. In 1822 a Danish-French geographer named Malthe Conrad Bruun suggested that the camel may be the solution to this problem. He pointed out that the the camel was ideally suited for the dessert. It could survive for long periods of time without food or water and could carry a hefty 170 to 270 kilograms of provisions on its back.

The First Camel to Arrive in Australia

The first camel was purchased from the Spanish on the Canary Islands and arrived in Australia in 1840 and was part of an expedition into the interior lead by John Horrocks. Unfortunately this animal was instrumental in Hancocks's accidental death and was shot.

Camels Used in The Burke and Wills Expedition

In 1860, 24 camels and 3 camel-drivers (cameleers) were imported from India to join the Burke and Wills expedition into the interior of Australia. The expedition was a disaster, with both Burke and Wills losing their lives, but the camels proved their usefulness. Some camels in this expiation escaped and may have formed the first contingent of the feral camel population of Australia.

Camels for Transportation and Infrastructure Projects

Having proven their usefulness huge numbers of camel were imported into Australia. In the period 1870 to 1900 alone, more than 15,000 camels and 3,000 cameleers arrived in Australia. These animals and their drivers provided a vital service in the exploration of the interior of Australia. They were used to carry supplies in the setting up of the first telegraph line through the desert from Adelaide to Darwin and in the construction of the railroad between Port Augusta and Alice Springs. This railroad is known today as the Ghan, in honour of the cameleers who lead the camel teams in its construction. (Note: "Ghan" is derived from the word Afghan, as most of the cameleers originated from Afghanistan whose people are called Afghans).


Reasons the Camel Became Feral Why Australian Camels Became Feral

With the advent of motor vehicles and railroads camels were no longer needed, and by the 1930s most were slaughtered or set free.

Discarded by their owners, these animals had to fend for themselves in the Australian Outback and became feral. The hardy camel was ideally suited for the dry Australian deserts. It could handle the heat, had no predators and was capable of eating almost any the vegetation found there. Wild camel numbers increased rapidly. In 1966 it was estimated that there were 20,000 feral camels. By 2008 this number was estimated to be 500,000. Their numbers have increased so much that they are now considered a serious threat to native habitat. An extensive culling was undertaken between 2008 and 2013. The present population is now estimated at about 350,000 animals. Today there are more wild camels in Australia than anywhere else in the world.


Feral Camel Habitat & Distribution Where Do Feral Camels Live?

Distribution

Camels inhabit the dessert interior of Australia, including the Great Sandy, Gibson, Great Victoria and Simpson deserts in the states of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, western Queensland and northern South Australia – an area o of 3.3 million sq km. (Dromedary camels are also found in the desserts and arid regions of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East and Africa.)

Habitat

Camels thrive in arid and semi-arid areas. They are non-territorial and wander widely, travelling as much as 70 kms a day depending on the availability food, water and summer shade. During winter, camels prefer open plains, salt marshes and lakes. In summer they prefer dense bush country with trees for shade.


Camel Reproduction Camel Babies

A camel gives birth to a single calf about 12-14 months after mating. Just prior to giving birth she removes herself from the herd and withdraws to a quiet place covered with vegetation to give birth. The new born calf has no hump when it is born, instead it has some loose skin on top of its back covered wit curly hair were the hump will eventually form. The new calf can walk within half an hour. The mother and calf remain away from the herd for a period of two weeks before they return. The calf is nursed for about 10-18 months after which it becomes totally independent.

The infant mortality rate amongst baby camels is about 30% of this it is claimed that nearly half is caused by aggressive male camels that forcefully separate females from their calves to mate with them.

A camel reaches adulthood in about 7 years.


Feral Camel Impacts on the Australian Environment

While feral camels are classified as pests, their overall impact on the Australian environment is not as severe as that of some other animals introduced into Australia. Major ecological damage occurs when their population number increase to a point where they overstress available resources.

Feral camels impact the Australian environment by:

• Consuming native vegetation and striping these plants of their leaves. While an individual camel may not denude a plant, because they move in herds of up to 1,000 animals, collectively camels severely deplete and stress local vegetation and deprive native animals of their food and shelter.
• Exhausting and polluting waterholes which cause native animals to die of thirst.
• Damaging pastoral properties by destroying windmills, fences, water pipes and even water taps and eating vegetation and drinking water meant for livestock. The cost of repairing such infrastructure in the Australian Outback is exorbitantly expensive.
• Sometimes causing serious traffic hazards on roads, rail lines and even airplane runways.

Related: Introduced Animals of Australia


Predators and Threats What Threatens the Feral Camel?

Camel Racing is Popular in Alice Springs

The annual Apex Camel Cup event in Alice Springs is a fun event with hilarious antics by riders wielding equally enthusiastic camels all vying for coveted troupe at the end of the race.

Natural Predators and Threats

Feral camels have no natural predators in Australia. Deaths are primarily caused by old age or prolonged drought where the animals starve to death. There are also reports of infanticide, where bulls during mating season are openly hostile towards newborn calves, forcing the cow away from the calf after birth, leading to the death of the calf.

Humans

From time to time various local and state government initiate culling campaigns to reduce feral camel numbers. Camels are also harvested for their meat which is used in pet food or exported overseas. Some camels are occasionally exported to the Middle East.


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