Millions of families living in hostile environments, with high and low temperatures, droughts and aridity, have a great ally in their battle to survive: the camelid. Camels, dromedaries and llamas are some of the species making up this family and this year they are celebrating: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2018 the International Year of the Camelids.
At the request of Bolivia, which has nearly three million llamas, the international body wants to highlight the importance of these animals for food security and nutrition, since they are the main source of protein for indigenous communities in various regions of the world. They also provide fibres, organic fertilizers (through their droppings), energy and transport, which are all essential for nomadic peoples.
The experts consulted by OpenMind appear delighted that this is their year. “It’s great because it can help to raise awareness about the economic and social importance that these animals have not only in South America but increasingly in the world,” emphasizes José M. Capriles, professor of the Department of Anthropology at the State University of Pennsylvania (USA).
Although today there is no longer any trace of them in North America, the truth is that the first camelids emerged in that region during the Pliocene, an era that began more than five million years ago.
Christine M. Janis, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University (USA), explains to OpenMind that: “camelids were much more diverse in body form in the past than they are today and they only became extinct in North America around ten thousand years ago.” From this region, the animals migrated to Africa and Asia through the Bering Strait three million years ago and also to the south through the Isthmus of Panama, reaching South America.
Although this family came to be made up of eight genera, today there are only three: Camelus, which lives in the steppes of Asia and Africa, and Vicugna and Lama, which inhabit the Andes. The famous camel with two humps is a Bactrian (it is named after the historical region of its supposed origin in Central Asia: Bactria), with the Wild Bactrian Camel being in critical danger of extinction as there are only about 950 adult specimens left in remote areas of the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts. The animal with only one hump is a dromedary and both belong to the genus Camelus.
They all share a herbivorous diet and have long necks and legs, large canine teeth, upper lips divided into two parts and the absence of hooves. In their place they have two toes with nails and pads that support their weight. Another curious feature is their way of walking. Instead of doing so like horses, alternating between the left and right at each step, the camel moves its legs on the same side one after the other.
Allies of the Inca civilization
Capriles recalls the importance that this family of camelids still has as a source of food. Both its milk and its meat are rich in protein and its fine fur is used to weave very fine woollen garments. “Camelids have been important for communities in South America since the first human arrived on the continent,” he says.
“It is not an exaggeration to suggest the domestication of the llama and the alpaca was key for the development of complex societies such as the Inca in the Andes,” says the expert. In fact, it is believed that these two species emerged after the domestication of the wild guanaco by the Inca civilization.
Currently, it is estimated that camelids extend to some ninety countries, divided mainly between South America, Africa and Asia. There is also a small community in Australia.
“In Australia camels were introduced and used for transportation and accessing very remote areas in the past,” says Jaime Góngora, professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences of the University of Sydney (Australia) to OpenMind.
Sustainable and beautiful
A study carried out by Swiss researchers supports this transport function due to the low levels of contamination of animals: camels emit less methane than cows or sheep. It is estimated that around 20% of global emissions of methane gas come from ruminants.
Their lower metabolism, which requires less food to function, causes them to release less methane than domestic ruminants. This privileged body allows them to survive in areas with scarce food, desert or mountains.
Known as the ‘ships of the desert’ for their ability to endure without drinking water for up to ten days, the shepherding that still exists in some communities is a traditional task that promotes the sustainable use of ecosystems and helps fight against desertification.
The pastures from which they feed are regenerating and growing thanks to the fertilizer from their excrement, which prevents the degradation of the land and stimulates biodiversity, which are some of the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
As a curiosity, in countries like Oman there are races and even beauty competitions with these animals. Góngora and the doctoral candidate Mahmood Al Amri are designing a scorecard for these competitions based on the beauty phenotypes of the camel. “We will also study the genetics and genomics of these camels to assess association with beauty traits,” summarizes Góngora, just one more quality of this versatile family of animals.