Field Note: Bactrian Camel

The Bactrian camels at the Antelope & Zebra Area grow thick coats in winter...and naturally shed them again in spring.

The Bactrian camels at the Antelope & Zebra Area grow thick coats in winter...and naturally shed them again in spring.

A Closer Look at a Hairy Herd

Every spring, visitors to the Antelope & Zebra area may notice something odd about the Bactrian camels. No, the keepers haven’t given them peculiar haircuts. Unlike the nearby alpaca, who must be sheared to prepare them for summer heat, the camels’ coats fall off naturally as temperatures rise. This results in a rather ragged appearance as the fur falls off in clumps. “They look pretty shabby” during shedding season, admits Curator Diane Mulkerin.

This hair loss and regrowth is a handy adaptation for surviving both the extreme heat and cold of the Bactrian camel’s native Gobi Desert—and Chicago’s weather extremes as well. While many zoo animals choose to spend frigid Chicago winters indoors, females Indie, Mira and Nasan and male Scooter venture out year-round.

Even during the season of unfortunate hairdos, the zoo’s camels get along swimmingly. The four unrelated individuals are often found cuddled together in “a little camel pile” in the mornings, says Keeper Jason Martin. They range in age from 3 to 15 years. Indie, the oldest member of the herd, is recognizable by the one floppy hump with which she was born. At 3 years old, male Scooter is only just beginning to approach sexual maturity—between 3 and 5 years of age for this species—although Martin reports he’s “already chasing after the ladies.”

Wild Bactrian camels live in herds (also called flocks or caravans) of around 3 to 30 individuals, usually with an adult male leader. Yet nearly all Bactrian camels are domesticated; there are currently fewer than 1,000 camels in the wild. The species is critically endangered in China and Mongolia due to habitat loss and competition with livestock for food and water.

Although camels are generally calm, they can have a temper. When agitated, the massive mammals can kick their legs in all directions…and spit. This “spit” is more than just saliva—it includes some stomach contents as well. As Mulkerin, a one-time spittee, attests, “never stand next to an angry camel.” Just to be safe, it’s probably best to avoid mentioning their seasonal “bad hair” also.

 

By Julie Duke • Published March 26, 2014 • Originally published in Summer 2013 Lincoln Park Zoo Magazine