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What Purpose do Camels' Humps Serve?

The fat stored in a camel's hump enables it to cross vast, arid stretches on minimal food and water.
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  • Written By: A Kaminsky
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 March 2014
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Camels, those “schooners of the desert,” have played a crucial role in trade and culture in the Middle East, Africa and Asia for literally thousands of years. They have been used as currency for a bride price, for transport, shipping, food and clothing. Certainly one of the most distinctive features of this most useful animal is the hump. What purpose do camels’ humps serve? Why do they exist?

Camels’ humps are punishment, if one reads the story “How the Camel Got Its Hump” by Rudyard Kipling. In this amusing fable, Kipling paints a picture of an extremely lazy camel who would not work. His favorite word was “Humph.” When the chief djinn found out about the camel’s laziness, he went to see him and admonished him for being lazy. When the only reply he received was, “Humph,” that’s what the camel got on his back: a large “humph” of his very own, so he could go without eating for three days and catch up with the work he hadn’t done.

In the real world, camels’ humps serve that very purpose: camels can go for long periods of time without eating. Camels’ humps are made of fat, and will sustain the animal through long periods of travel and little food. They have other physiological features that also help them survive without eating or drinking, but camels’ humps are certainly the most noticeable.

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Camels’ humps and their other adaptations have made them the preferred animal for desert travel for thousands of years, going places where no other vehicle or transport can go. The Bactrian camel is the two-hump variety most often seen in Asia, and a traveler of the Gobi Desert. The one-hump Dromedary camel is the animal that crosses the Sahara.

Since camels’ humps are made of fat, they provide immediate energy. It was once thought camels’ humps helped them stay hydrated, but this has been disproven, since the animals would use too much energy metabolizing the fat into water for it to be efficient. Rather, camels can drink up to 20 gallons (75.6 liters) of water at a time, and their bodies store this water for long periods.

Camels’ humps also signal the health and well-being of the animal. The hump begins to soften and shrink as the animal goes without food, but when the camel eats and rests, the hump is soon restored. Camel’s humps are a remarkable feature that assist the animals in perfectly adapting to their desert life.

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Discuss this Article

shell4life
Post 7

@Oceana – Interesting comparison! However, I read that scientists have found a healthy breed of camel with no hump living in Tanzania.

I saw the pictures, and they don't look real. The camel's back is not even slightly rounded. It is so flat that it looks like someone took a knife and a ruler and sliced the hump off with precision!

This doesn't signify that they are unhealthy, though. They are just made differently. If you ask me, though, they look even weirder than the kind that carry humps around on their backs.

Oceana
Post 6

I suppose a camel with no hump would be in danger of death by starvation soon. It's weird that something so unattractive could signify good health.

The same is somewhat true for humans. Women strive to be skinny, but those with extremely flat abdomens and no fat on their bodies are actually unhealthy, generally speaking.

So, in both humans and camels, a little bit of fat is good for you. I think that we should embrace that and stop trying to rid ourselves of every little “hump.” I'm sure that a camel with no hump would gladly trade fat with a woman desiring to be thin!

OeKc05
Post 5

@seag47 – I heard that in school, as well! I'm glad that our children nowadays are being taught more accurate information.

In fact, I learned that the hump of the camel is not a big canteen by reading my daughter's textbook! Imagine that, a thirty-something-year-old woman learning accurate facts from a child's school book.

I also learned that the water goes mostly into their bloodstreams and their stomachs. It actually saddened me a little to discover that they weren't carrying around water lumps on their backs, because I used to think that was so cool!

seag47
Post 4

Well, this article has dispelled a long-held belief for me. I think that even as children in school, we were told that camels stored water in their hump.

So, it's nice to know the truth about the hump. However, that leaves me with one big question. Where do camels store that much water?

I can see why everyone thought it was in the hump, because it was this weird extra part sticking up that seemed like it didn't belong. Anyone who saw a camel drink twenty gallons would naturally assume that the water went into the large organic “canteen” on its back.

eidetic
Post 3

@JaneAir - Camel's do look pretty ridiculous, don't they? I think a double hump camel is especially crazy looking, but probably even more well suited to the desert than a camel with one hump. Because two humps means twice as much storage space for food, right?

I think the fable about how the camel got its hump is pretty funny too. Especially because camels don't seem to me like they're especially lazy animals. They're basically known for ferrying people across the desert, after all!

JaneAir
Post 2

That is really interesting. I've always wondered why camels' had humps. Because lets face it, the hump of a camel looks pretty ridiculous. So I always figured there had to be a really good reason for a camel to have a hump.

It makes complete sense to me that a camel's hump allows it to store fat for energy, because camels evolved in the desert. There aren't exactly a lot of options for eating in the desert, so for an animal to be successful living there, it would definitely have to have a way of storing food and water.

ellefagan
Post 1

*Neat* to find this "Always wanted to know!"

thanksomuch

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