Think of deserts, and camels come to mind. These unique hump-backed animals have beautifully adapted to the harsh life on our planet's hot and arid deserts.
Deserts have highly variable temperatures and contain the lowest humidity or water content on our Earth. Even vegetation is limited to a few thorny shrubs and cacti. But camels have not just lived in these regions but also helped support human life there - be it meat, milk, leather or even dung which was used as fuel.
Over the centuries, camels have accompanied caravans of people across continents. And so camels in far-off places have ended up with remarkably similar genes!
Ship Of The Desert
The 7-ft mammals extract every bit of nutrition from their herbivorous or plant-based diets. Their humps store fat, which the camels use as a source of water and energy on the move. This means they can cover over 160 km or 100 miles in the desert without needing to drink water! These animals don't even sweat in the 49°C or 120°F desert heat. Long eyelashes protect their eyes from the sand, while large hooves help them move across the shifting dunes, even with heavy loads.
There are two types of camels - Bactrian and Arabian. The Bactrian camels have two humps and live in the rocky deserts of Central Asia and have also adapted to the severe winters of that region. The only truly wild camels in the world today belong to this species.
The Arabian camels are called dromedaries and have just one hump. They are found across North Africa and the Middle East and have been used to ferry loads across the deserts for over 3500 years! A number of these camels were introduced to Australia in the 19 century and are the only wild dromedaries remaining.
How Camel Genes Spread
A group of geneticists from Nottingham, Vienna and Saudi Arabia studied over 1080 dromedaries or Arabian camels. They compared the DNA of these camels from around the world - including the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with DNA samples taken from ancient wild and domesticated camel fossils.
They found a remarkable similarity at a DNA level - that is, even camels that were geographically separated shared very similar genes. The reason for such genetic diversity was clear. Many Arabian camels were an integral part of trading caravans that traveled long distances across continents. Often, merchants were forced to leave behind some exhausted animals and take fresh stock on their return journey. This led to centuries of cross-breeding, and very similar genes across camel populations in different areas.
This genetic shuffling means camels are also likely to adapt quickly to changing environments. With issues of climate change and desert areas growing around the world, camels could possibly cope much better with such changes than other species of livestock.