Have you ever sat on a camel? Well, if you have, then you know how scary it is when the camel rises on its long wobbly legs. The rocking motion of a camel is a bit like a ship being tossed around in heaving seas. Small wonder then that the camel is often called the ship of the desert. Actually, the name owes its origins to the fact that camels were brought from the desert, to serve as beasts of burden in other countries.

Among the oldest domesticated animals in the world, camels have been used by humans as beasts of burden for more than 10,000 years now. There are very few wild camels left.

Dromedary camel
A Dromedary camel in the Rub al Khali or Empty Quarter. Straddling Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen, this is the largest sand desert in the world.

Most of us are only familiar with one species of camel, known as the Dromedary camel. This animal is single-humped, has long legs and is found in the deserts of Asia and Africa. Another specie (the two-humped shorter-legged Bactrian camel) is found in parts of China and Central Asia.

A bactrian camel standing high in the mountains of Caucasus, Russia.
A bactrian camel standing high in the mountains of Caucasus, Russia.

Recently, scientists discovered what they think is a new species of wild camel that lives in a remote part of China. These mammals look very similar to the Bactrian camel but they have a unique feature – they survive by drinking salty water.

Strangely enough, scientists knew about the existence of the animal, but had no idea of their unique identity – their ability to survive on salty water. As a result, researchers now admit that these animals are not Bactrian camels as initially thought, but a new species.

The only visible physical difference is that the saltwater drinking specie has its humps further apart than the Bactrian camel. Researchers also discovered that the kneecaps of the ‘new specie’ are quite different from that of their domesticated cousins.

Camels are most common in the African and Asian deserts, but fossil evidence shows that camels originated in North America about 45 million years ago. So how did they manage to trapeze into Africa? Well, millions of years ago, North America and Asia were connected by a land mass – the present-day Bering Strait.

Scientists think that the camels migrated into South America and across to Asia, disappearing almost entirely from the land of its origin. However, many researchers say that the South American llama is a direct descendent of the camel.

As for the new specie of camel, there are fewer than 800 of them left, for people hunt camels for their meat in this barren part of China. It seems to be more of an endangered specie than the giant panda and may well earn the distinction of becoming extinct at the time of its discovery.