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.
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.