Bactrian Camel

Bactrian Camel

[ Camelus bactrianus ]

Quick Facts

HEIGHT: 10 feet 

1,575 pounds

WILD DIET: grass, leaves, shrubs, thorns, and saltbush
ZOO DIET: hay, carrots, and herbivore grain
DISTRIBUTION: wild: Mongolia and China; domestic: throughout Asia
HABITAT: arid areas, including desert, grassland, valleys, and canyons in mountainous areas


Extreme Camels

There’s no mistaking a camel...
Nothing looks quite like a camel. Three meters tall, with long legs, knobby knees, broad feet, a curved neck, massive head, and a hump or two, camels cut a distinctive profile on the desert landscape. Bactrian camels walk in a distinctive way, with a swinging stride in which the front and hind legs on each side of their body move in unison. Although they move slowly most of the time, they can run up to 65 kph (40 mph) when they have to.

Desert ready
Camels have many adaptations for life in a harsh, desert environment. Their broad feet keep them atop the sand when they walk. An elastic layer of connective tissue spreads out their foot pads and keeps them from sinking into the sand. Camels have heavy eyelashes, their ears are small and hairy, and their nostrils are slit-like and closeable. All these adaptations keep out sand and dust. In the summer they shed their long fur to keep cool. It comes off in big clumps and gives them a temporarily ragged appearance.

A cold desert?
Bactrian camels can tolerate extreme temperature changes and harsh weather. They are found in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, where temperatures get down to -30 C (22 F) in the winter and heat up to 50 C (122 F) in the summer! Camels have many special adaptations that allow them to survive in such an extreme environment. In the winter, they grow dense hair that keeps them warm. The hair is extra long on their humps, forelegs, head, neck, and the tip of the tail. Extremities like these get cold quicker than the rest of the camel's body, which is less densely furred but is able to retain heat because it’s so big.

One hump, or two?
Bactrian camels have two humps. Their close relatives, dromedary camels, have one hump. (You can remember this because the letter "B" has two humpsand the letter "D" has one hump. Two humpsBactrian. One humpDromedary!)

Some people think that camels' humps are filled with water, but really the humps store fat. When food is scarce, camels can live off the fat in their humps for a long time. The fat helps them survive the tough times of the Gobi Desert, whether it's the heat or the cold. The humps are also an indicator of the camel's health. As the stored fat is used up, the humps become floppy and lean to one side. When camels have recently eaten, the humps are erect and plump.

A few in the wild
An estimated 1,000 Bactrian camels live in their native range in Mongolia, so they're considered an endangered species. Towns are beginning to spread in the once wild areas of the Gobi Deserts. With an expanding human population comes habitat loss, and wild camels are losing the waterholes upon which they depend for survival. Camels also have to compete for food and water with domestic herds of animals, including other camels.

Bactrian breeding habits
Bactrian camels sometimes live alone, and sometimes in groups of up to 30. Although little is known about Bactrian camels' social behavior in the wild, scientists believe they live in family groups consisting of one male, several females, and their offspring.

When male camels become sexually mature, at about five or six years of age, they're driven from the family group and live alone or in bachelor groups. Female Bactrian camels become sexually mature at about three or four years of age. Females usually give birth to a single offspring every other year, in March or April, after a gestation period of 12 to 14 months. Bactrian camels live up to 40 years.

Bactrian camels at Brookfield Zoo
You can see Bactrian camels in their exhibit along the northern part of the zoo, across from Australia House.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society