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Episode 35: Ships of the Desert, The Bactrian Camel

The Bactrian Camel is one of two major camel species and has two humps. The other major camelid is the Dromedary Camel, which has one hump.  An easy way to remember the two is just by their names. The Bactrian starts with a B, which on its side looks like two humps, whereas the Dromedary starts with a D and on its side looks like one hump.

Bactrian Camel Origins

There are two species of Bactrian Camels.

  • Camelus ferus (true wild Bactrian)
  • Caemlus bactrianus (domesticated Bactrian)

These two different species have been confirmed by DNA analysis and establishes distinct differences between the two.

Camels have been evolving since the last great mass extinction, nearly 65 million years ago. They originally evolved in North America and follow a very similar pattern to that of Equidae (horses). Once a four-toed animal, they slowly evolved into the even-toed (two) ungulate we see today.

Recent scientific evidence points to camels evolving in modern-day Canada. It is believed that as these animals adapted to survive in these harsh cold climates, they evolved the physiology that allows them to survive the harsh Gobi or Sahara deserts of today. Bactrian Camels are thought to have evolved around 2 million years ago.

The largest camel discovered to date is the Syrian Camel. This giant stood 10 feet (3 meters) at the shoulder and could be as tall as 13 feet (4 meters) at the hump. They resembled the modern Dromedary camel, but of course much, much larger. They are in fact estimated to be taller than today’s African elephants and are thought to have died out about 100,000 years ago.

Camel Physiology

Under human care, camels can live up to 50 years, but most domesticated Bactrians live around 35 years. A group of camels is called a caravan, with males bulls and females cows.

The camels have incredible physical adaptations, which allow them to survive the deserts.

  • Unique, oval-shaped red blood cells making them more efficient
  • Can store up to 200 liters water in their stomachs (pseudo-rumen)
  • Have dual set of long eyelashes and a third eye which protects them against sand
  • Can close their nostrils to prevent sand from entering
  • In winter grow long shaggy coats, up to 15 inches (40 cm) in length
  • Large splayed feet allowing them to walk easier on sand

Camel humps are not meant to be a storage place for water, but rather fat. These fat reserves help them survive and provide energy during lean times. The majority of water storage for camels are their stomachs, and in fact they can go up to 6 months without drinking. However, they will still absorb moisture from the many plants they eat. Each hump of a Bactrian Camel stores up to 80 lbs (36 kg) of fat. Roughly, each hump can only store about 2 gallons of water.

Bactrian Camel Conservation

Wild Bactrian Camels are critically endangered.  It is estimated there are less than 1,000 of these animals left in the entire world. They are isolated in small pockets of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and China.

Domestic Bactrian Camels are estimated to be around 1,000,000 worldwide. There are pockets of feral Bactrian camels in Australia. However, these are a completely different from the true “wild” Bactrian Camel.

Organizations to Support

Wild Camel Protection Foundation

Brookfield Zoo


Bactrian Camels and Mating Behavior

 Angie’s Article on Training Camels

Training a Camel to Cush
Using Operant Conditioning
Angie Adkin, Assistant Lead Keeper
Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL

Standing 8ft. tall and weighing 17721bs.*, Indie is an 11-year-old female Bactrian camel [Camelus
bactrianns] that was bom at Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZ). Prior to 2004, Indie had no formal operantconditioning
training nor was she halter trained as a youngster. Instead, Indie was mother-reared amongst a large herd of females in a protected-contact setting. Indie is a dominant female at LPZ
who is extremely food motivated. I used both of these factors to my advantage when I started her
operant-conditioning program.
In 2004, when I first met Indie, I began the process by feeding her carrots and conditioning her to get used to my presence. The formal operant-conditioning training started, in the fall of 2005, when I introduced her to the bridge. Within a few weeks after I introduced the bridge (whistle). Indie paired
the bridge with food. She proved to be an eager participant in the operant-conditioning program.

Training Triumphs:
The stalls in the bam had horizontal oak boards with metal bar windows that give just a small access
area for target training, which 1 felt was limiting Indie’s training potential. After discussions with my
managers, we installed a 2’ x 3’ [~ 0.6 x 0.9m] heavy-duty nylon net, known as a horse stall guard,
across the stall door opening. This allowed Indie’s head and neck to be more exposed for tactile desensitization (i.e. palpating, grooming, checking eyes/ears) when the stall door was opened while
inhibiting her from exiting the stall. Additionally, it was detemiined that it would be best for me to enter the stall to work with Indie (with another keeper present for safety) when she was laying down
stemally with all four of her feet tucked underneath her body. This position is referred to as a cush
in the camelid world.
Indie responded well to me entering her stall since animal keepers in the past had gone in with her in this position. However, since she had a tendency to be a bit assertive in a cush, 1 decided it was best to only give
the primary reinforcer, food, at the end of the cush
session. During the cush session, I used a secondary
reinforcer of tactile scratches/ bmshing to reward her. In the new protected-contact setup Indie’s training flourished and evolved. It even included desensitizing her to a wearing a pink halter.

Who’s Training Who:
So the training went on. . .until, one morning this past
fall, I shifted the camels inside from their overnight
yard and noticed that Indie was in a cush within 10 minutes after eating her morning grain ration. Typically,
she would cush in the stall, but not until 30-60
minutes after coming into the bam. 1 thought to myself, hmmmm, maybe she’s just really eager to
train today. So, I immediately reinforced her with her favorite food. At the moment, I realized that it might be possible to capture the cush behavior.
Historically, the traditional way to train a domestic camel to cush involves roping their legs to forcefully
encourage them down. This training typically happens when they are youngsters. For Indie, this was not a plausible option. Thus, I put together a shaping plan to capture the cush behavior. . .but first,
I had to encourage this early-morning cushing so it would be possible to capture it. The camels are fed and kept inside their stalls for a few
hours in the morning while a keeper cleans and prepares
their yard. Undoubtedly, this is a busy time for all keepers,
but feeding Indie a handful of treats when she was
in the cush position only took a few minutes. Since I was just reinforcing her for being in a cush, I could go
about my morning work and just feed her whenever I passed by with my wheelbarrow and saw her in a cush.
I made it a point never to feed her if she was standing
up. The results were amazing! Within a few weeks, she was cushing just a few minutes after eating her morning
grain. A few times, I tried offering Indie only half of her morning grain ration so that I could jackpot the other half when she was in a cush, but this only proved to frustrate
her. Therefore, I just used extra carrot and apples from
that point forward.

Capturing The Cush Behavior:
Finally, on a cold morning this past January, the big day
arrived. I fed Indie her grain and walked away, as normal,
to continue on with my duties. Except this time, I stood down the hallway out of her visual path and waited. Since Indie is so training motivated, I assumed it would be best if I did not stand directly in front of
her stall while waiting for her to cush, as this might cause more frustration. So, I waited. . .and, within
10 minutes, I could see her starting to lie down. As the excitement raced through my veins like tiny firecrackers filled with hope, I inched towards her to bridge this behavior. Unfortunately, the minute she saw and/or heard me, she popped up into a standing position. Although I was disappointed, I knew I had to walk away as to not reinforce the standing-up behavior. The next day, I followed the same steps. Yet, as she was cushing, I contained my excitement, waited and bridged when she was more settled in the down position. This time, she stayed down and earned a jackpot ofher favorite treats! As I fed her, I used the verbal cue “down” with the visual cue of my hand,to begin the association process. I repeated the capturing method for the next two days.
On the fifth morning, I felt that it was time to try pairing the visual and verbal cues with the cushing behavior. I waited for her to finish her grain, and I started a routine training session by asking her to “target.” I wanted this to set the stage for a positive training interaction. Next, I gave Indie the verbal cue “down” simultaneously with a visual cue of my left hand moving down—and waited. While I stood in front of her stall quietly waiting, she appeared to become frustrated and pawed the ground, urinated and circled the stall a few times. Although this lasted only five minutes Author grooming camel Indie at LPZ. or so, it felt a lot longer to me. I offered the “down” cue a few more times to gain her attention and familiarize her with this new behavior request. My hope was that she would ultimately return to the last known spot of reinforcement, which was the cush position, and lay down in front of me. I was almost ready to end the session, when all of a sudden she rocked forward a step, rocked back, paused and slowly lowered her enormous body down. As my eyes widened with delight, I bridged, jackpotted and praised. Over the next few weeks, I continued asking for the cush behavior in the morning and shaping the behavior so she would cush immediately after being cued. This process took a few “time outs,” but overall it was a smooth transition.

Indie’s training has continued to flourish and blossom. Indie will even do a cush for training demonstrations
during tours. Also, this behavior has opened many doors for improving her care while
protecting the staff’s safety. From grooming to routine veterinary health examinations. Indie’s appetite
and motivation was successfully channeled to enhance her care for the rest of her life. Acknowledgements:
A special thanks to the keeper staff at Antelope/Zebra and the Farm-In-The-Zoo (presented by John
Deere) for all their support and help throughout the years. Also, many thanks to Jonathan Miot,
Assistant Director / Assistant Professor at the Sante Fe College Teaching Zoo and AAZK Behavioral Husbandry Committee member, for all his training advice and encouragement to write the article. Lastly, thank you to all of my proof-readers and editors at the Lincoln Park Zoo: Jason Martin, Keeper
at AZ, Penny Reidy, Lead Keeper of AZ, Laszlo Szilagyi, Zoological Manager of AZ/FITZ, Dave
Bernier, Curator of Mammals, and Megan Ross, General Curator

June 05, 2018
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