Camel Evolution to Climate Change

Camel Evolution to Climate Change

Hoping to reduce the negative effects of a warming environment on humans and animals, scientists are studying Arabian and Asian camels. The Arabian camel is the first mammal genome to be sequenced and analyzed in the Middle East, but the Quran has been asking humans to study the camel for over 1,400 years:

Do they not look at the Camels, how they are made? [Quran 88:17]

The new DNA analysis is showing how camels have adapted to the extreme environment of the desert. Some of these evolutions include improvements in fat and water metabolism, aridity and heat stress resistance, increased tolerance to choking dust, and resistance to intense ultraviolet radiation.

Studying Asian and Arabian Camel Evolution

Both camel breeds live in extreme desert environments – making them ideal creatures for studying their evolution to Earth’s warming environments. To adapt to harsh conditions, camels have acquired many special characteristics. The camel’s body temperature may vary from 34 to 41°C (or 93-105°F) throughout the day. They can withstand substantial water loss, and store fat in their humps and abdomens for use in times of food and water deprivation.


Camels Evolved to Survive in the Desert

The study, published in Nature Communications, is a collaborative effort between King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia (KACST), the Beijing Genomics Institute, and Inner Mongolia Agricultural University. 

The researchers sequenced the genes of the two-humped Asian Bactrian camel, the single-humped Arabian Dromedary camel, and one of their nearest relatives, the alpaca. Huanmin Zhou and his colleagues identified improved stress response to heat, respiratory function, and visual protection, when compared to the alpaca. The authors believe that camels underwent this evolution in order to survive.

Taking a Closer Look at Camels

Compared to the alpaca, it was also evident that evolution in genes related to lung development happened rapidly, possibly allowing them to endure the breathing challenges involved with airborne sand and dust in windy desert environments. 

Genes related to visual characteristics also showed interesting evolution in the camels’ ability to tolerate prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light without damaging their eyes. 


To provide energy and compensate for significant water loss, camels’ blood glucose levels are twice as high as cows, sheep, and goats. Also, camels typically consume eight times more salt than cattle and sheep, yet they do not develop diabetes or hypertension. The scientists believe this is an evolution of the camel’s kidney.

Amazingly, camels do not overheat. In times of dehydration, the water is used from body tissue, but not blood. Because of this, their blood circulation is protected, sustaining the heart’s healthy functions. Camels can lose up to 25% of their body weight in water loss, meaning they can lose more than 200 kilos, or over 450 pounds, without suffering dehydration. Humans, on the other hand, dehydrate water from both blood, and tissue. This impacts the heart’s ability to pump, and death will occur soon after losing around 12% of body fluids.

The Highly Prized “Ships of the Desert”

Camels also rehydrate very quickly. Evolution in genes related to sodium and potassium use in the camels’ bodies suggest more efficient use than in alpaca and cattle. Sodium and potassium are critical factors in water reabsorption. For all of these reasons, camels have been domesticated, bred, and highly prized since ancient times.

Often referred to as “ships of the desert,” camels are excellent modes of transportation through the extreme environment of the desert. Not surprisingly, the Quran mentions their use as transportation for pilgrims traveling to make Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia:

And proclaim the Pilgrimage among men: they will come to thee on foot and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways [Quran 22:27]


Studying Camel Evolution for Improved Breeding

Identifying key genes involved in evolution to desert environments may improve selective breeding to increase the number of camels with favorable traits, such as faster speed, more meat, and higher milk yield. Explains Abdulaziz Al-Swailem, vice president for scientific research support at KACST, “Camels have a significant impact on our economy [in Saudi Arabia] so we need research to improve camel breeds and their milk and meat yield.”

Camel meat is considered healthier than beef, and the meat of a single camel can feed up to one hundred people. The annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj is an expedition full of significant events, including the ritual sacrifice of animals in commemoration of Abraham’s obedience to God. Camels are especially significant for this sacrifice, not only because they feed so many people, but because God directs their use for this purpose in the Holy Quran:

The sacrificial camels we have made for you as among the Symbols from Allah: in them is (much) good for you: then pronounce the name of Allah over them as they line up (for sacrifice): when they are down on their sides (after slaughter), eat ye thereof, and feed such as (beg not but) live in contentment, and such as beg with due humility: thus have we made animals subject to you, that ye may be grateful. [Quran 22:36]

Got Camel Milk?

Humans would need twelve liters of water a day to survive in the desert, but with camel milk it is possible to survive on only 2 to 4 liters a day. And a lactating camel can produce anywhere from four to twelve kilos of milk a day, or around 1-3 gallons, for up to 18 months. Camel milk is very rich, it has a much higher amount of potassium, which helps the body retain fluids. She also carries it in a convenient “container,” making it unnecessary to transport additional weight in water.


Even in times of drought the camel continues to produce milk longer than cows, sheep, and goats. In addition to potassium, camel milk also contains more fat, water, lactose, protein, iron, phosphorus, calcium, and vitamin C than cow’s milk. It is famous for staying fresh much longer than cow’s milk, too. However, milk of any source is loved by Muslims (I particularly love the milk of water buffalos), as we are taught in the Hadith that the Holy Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, loved and recommended milk:

The one Allah feeds milk, let him say: “O Allah, bless us with it and give more!” For I know of nothing that suffices better for food than this drink. [The Prophet Muhammad]

The Unique Immune System of Camels

Both of the camel breeds studied showed evolution in genes related to DNA damage and repair, as well as improved immune responses. Camels’ immune systems protect them from many of the viral diseases that affect other mammals, such as foot-and-mouth disease, and rinderpest.

Mohamed Al-Fageeh, research manager and associate professor at the National Center for Biotechnology at KACST, explains that the camels’ unique immune system includes “nano-bodies.” These are extra-small antibodies especially resistant to harsh environments, even within the camel’s hard-working body.

A deeper understanding of the camel immune system through gene sequencing can potentially help develop new vaccines for humans. The small size of camel antibodies would also allow them to penetrate deep into human tissue and cells that would not be otherwise accessible, thus improving antibiotic therapies. Diabetes therapies show potential, too. Al-Fageeh notes, “Understanding the molecular mechanisms involved in the very high blood sugar levels of camels could pave the way for the development of therapies for diabetes.”

Besides medical research, the scientists also believe camel genes could be useful for studying biological evolution in light of climate change. “Our next step is to sequence more camels,” Al-Fageeh says. “We will sequence different varieties in Saudi Arabia and do comparative genomics within the Arabian camel species.”

Understanding the mechanisms at work in the bodies of camels under extremely hot conditions seems like a great area of study. Leaving the earth to warm up, without trying to protect ourselves from danger, seems unrealistically hopeful, and more likely avoidably unhelpful. Islam is full of easy answers, and this reminds me of another hadith in which we receive guidance on exactly this question of protecting ourselves, and those we love, from danger:

Anas ibn Malik reported: A man said, “O Messenger of Allah, should I tie my camel and trust in Allah, or should I leave her untied, and trust in Allah?” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Tie her, and trust in Allah.” [From Hadith]


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About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid (Birth-name Kathleen Vail) is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, sustainable economics, corporate social responsibility, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.