Aside from their fascinating appearance, camels have an intricate inner system that allows them to survive. These creatures are related to ruminant animals, which are a special group of hooved mammals that use regurgitation to process the plant matter they consume.
Some examples of this family of animals are sheep, deer, giraffes, and cows. Ruminant animals have four compartment stomachs while camelids, which include camels, llama, and alpaca, have three compartment stomachs. These varied compartments play different roles in the process of digesting plant nutrients in a way that is more efficient than other herbivores.
How does the stomach of a camel work?
Unlike humans, ruminants and camelids do not have the enzyme cellulase, which breaks down vegetation. As a result, they have adapted to have multiple chambered stomachs. Each compartment has a different role in helping to digest their diet. Ruminant animals first swallow their food whole, regurgitate it to chew it a second time, and then swallow it once more.
(Diagram of ruminant digestive system. A camel is not a true ruminant and lacks the fourth compartment, the omasum)
The largest chamber of the stomach is called the rumen and is the first place where matter is processed. The food arrives whole in the rumen where it is stored and partially digested until the animal is resting. In this first step, bacteria helps to process nutrients from the plants. The plant matter that can not be digested is sent to the second chamber, the reticulum, where it is formed into masses that are regurgitated back to the mouth of the animal for additional chewing. In this process of mastication, called chewing the cud, saliva helps to further break down their food which is then sent into the third chamber, the omasum, where water and essential acids are absorbed. In this third part, muscular contractions allow for further mashing of the food before it is sent to the fourth and final step in the abomasum. Here gastric secretions offer some last help for digestion before the food leaves the stomach and travels into the small intestine.
In ruminant animals, the digestion process is intricate and efficient. Camelids are similar to ruminants yet only have three compartments to their stomach- C1, C2, C3, which relate to the rumen, ruminant and abomasum, respectively. The differences between the two types of digestion processes are that camels have a smaller C1, or rumen, and they do not have a compartment comparable to the omasum.
What is the advantage of a ruminant digestive system?
The process of rumination has several benefits for herbivores. First, prey animals are most vulnerable when eating. Foraging as quickly as possible and storing it to later digest, is an adaptation that allows these animals to be vulnerable for a lesser period of time. The compartmentalized stomach proves advantageous since it allows for a large amount of stored food to conserve during nutrition droughts.
What does a camel eat?
A desert animal, food can be hard to find for camels and alongside their stomach, they have other adaptations that allow for survival in the desert. For instance, their leathery lips allow them to feast on plants inaccessible to most other animals, such as ones with a thorny exterior.
Being an herbivore, camels also eat many other forms of vegetation, including grasses. The moisture levels in grasses and other greens also aid in water consumption. Camels store this food and water in order to survive long periods without access to either.
Do camels store water in their humps?
Though many believe camels store water in their humps, this is in fact a misconception. Depending on the species, a camel will either have one or two humps that store fatty tissue, which is used as a source of nourishment when food is scarce. These animals can live off of these reserves for up to several months. The humps not only help regulate nutrition, but contribute to thermoregulation. In the desert, conditions are extreme. The days are extremely hot while the nights see a drastic drop in temperature. The concentration of fat in the humps minimizes the heat insulation throughout the rest of the body. When night falls, the heat stored in the humps then dissipates to the rest of the body to keep it comfortable during the cold hours.
A camel’s system is very well adapted to the extremes of the environment in which they live. Their multiple chambered stomach allows for a higher absorption of nutrients from scarce food sources as the humps contribute to the length at which they can survive off of water and plant matter. As animals that live in what seems a perpetual drought, their personalized adaptations make them an avid survivor in conditions not many could thrive in.
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