Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Prof Malie Smuts, Emeritus Professor, Dept of Anatomy, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria was invited to address the HICSA Gauteng meeting held on 9 May 2008. Her topic: Compiling an anatomical atlas of the camel.

She was invited by the Ben Gurion University in Israel to compile the world's first anatomical atlas of the camel, in 1982. The book was published in 1987 by Clarendon Press under the title:

Her talk follows:
Before getting to camels, I would like to tell you how I became involved with this amazing animal.

During the 80’s, before Israel had their own Veterinary Faculty, we regularly had a couple of Israeli students in our classes. One of them, a girl, had often worked during
holidays at the Desert Research Institute of the Ben Gurion University near Beesheva. in the Negev desert. She often heard the head of the Institute, Prof. Daniel Cohen, mention that the greatest need for further research, was a thorough study of the anatomy of the camel.

She contacted Prof Cohen and suggested that he invites me to come and do it.
My only condition was that he also invites a good biomedical artist..Without illustrations
Anatomy is pretty useless.

And so it happened that I arrived there on August 1982, with very little knowledge about camels.

It was summer and the temperature was 40 degrees. The centre was modern, but no air conditioner.

I was introduced to the staff. A young guy . general factotum who was responsible for feeding the animals and cleaning stables, put out his hand and said “Shalom professor,
My name is Schmulik, and I was not born to serve anyone.”

That put me neatly in my place. We eventually became good friends, but I knew that I would have to tackle this job on my own.

Meanwhile prof Cohen appointed a very gifted young artist, David Mazierski, who had just graduated from Toronto University . This was his very first appointment.

A Bedouin chief, Kahlil abu Rubia, offered to supply me with camels. Kahlil was an
attorney and his mobile office consisted of his Peugeot 404. His uncle was the very first Bedouin to serve in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

In Anatomy one has to start with the bones. And David could not start his illustrations until there were clean bones to draw.
A dead camel was delivered at the Institute - and it smelled as dead camels do after a week under the desert sun.
David and I got masks and scalpels and forceps from the hospital and got down to cutting the rotten meat from the bones.
Suddenly David plucked the mask from his face, threw down his instruments with
“I was’nt hired to do this kind of thing” and stormed to our office.

So I continued on my own. An hour or so later, a rather embarrassed David appeared and he said “ Sorry, I said to myself if you can do it, I can do it too”
There and then a bond formed between us. In fact, we are still in touch by e-mail.
And so we cleaned up the whole camel.
The next step was finding a 40 gallon drum for boiling the bones. And naturally we needed a fire. An unexpected problem was that there was no wood in that area,
So we cleaned out the storeroom of cardboard boxes and lit our fire.

As soon as the flames were nicely going, a smiling Schmulik came along and asked us to take a photograph of him at the fire.
Now each single bone - large and small - had to be cleaned with a brush before putting it in the sun to bleach. Pretty soon we had the largest collection of camel bones in the country. And David could start drawing.
The next step was dissecting the muscles and ligaments. Not only on one camel, but on six. We had to exclude abnormalities and be quite sure that we describe and illustrate the normal.

After this the organs followed - from head to pelvis.
Meanwhile SPRING had come. I experienced the joy of a total transformation of the surroundings - with black tulips and wonderful colours everywhere.
On Friday evenings I was regularly invited by my orthodox friends to join them for their special shabat dinner. I still have contact with them.

After 12 months the first 3 phases were completed and my colleague from Onderstepoort, Prof Braam Bezuidenhout, arrived to complete the the rest of the project, namely the Brain and Nervous System, and the Bloodvessels.

I must mention that Prof Bezuidenhout , who is currently teaching at Cornell University, was elected last September as Lecturer of the Year by the State of New York. A huge honour for him and also for Onderstepoort.

After this introduction I would like to tell you more about the the origin and history of this exciting creature.

60 million years ago, in North America, a small animal, the size of a hare, was found. Its name was Protilopus - and it looked very, very different than its modern descendents.
After millions of years of climatic changes, the swamps dried up. Grass and shrubs appeared, and sandy surfaces developed. Little Protilopus became bigger:

Teeth developed to eat shrubs and grass
Limbs got longer, as did the neck. This enabled him to spot predators from afar.
Most important of all: the feet changed: and became equipped with elastic, shock absorbing pads, ideal for sandy surfaces, where its natural enemies could not compete for survival.
Between 10 million and 1 million years ago, when the Americas began drifting away from Africa and Europe, the ancestors of the modern camel , as well as those of the Horse, crossed over the remaining land bridges of Panama in the south and Bering in the north, as adventurous discoverers.
Those that went south across the Panama land bridge arrived in South America and developed into the Llama, Alpacka and other humpless camels.

Those who crossed the Bering land bridge reached the dry girdle of the Northern Hemisphere, right into Eastern Europe.
Here 2 distinct types developed: Those with one hump and those with 2.
Somewhere in the west of Asia, the 2-humps, or Bactrianus, separated from the single humped, called Dromedary.
The Bactrianus went northwards while the Dromedaries spread into Arabia and North Africa, from East to West.
The eventual domestication of the Dromedary took place in Central and Southern Arabia.

The poet OGDEN NASH had something to say about the subject:
The camel has a single hump
The Dromedary two
Or else the other way around
I’m never sure
Are you?

Even Kipling had something to say:
The camel’s hump
Is an ugly lump
Which well you can see at the zoo
But uglier yet
Is the hump we get
From having too little to do

Camels also appear in several of Esop’s Fables.
Long, long ago, the camel pleaded with Jupiter to please give him horns. It greatly saddened him to see the magnificent horns of other animals while he had none.
Not only did Jupiter refuse to give him the horns he wanted, but he cut his ears short for his cheek. The moral of the story is that by demanding too much, we may well lose the little we have.

THE EARLIEST WRITTEN REFERENCE TO THE CAMEL is found in Genesis 24 and 25 , dating from 1800 BC. It tells the story of Abraham sending his servant with 10 camels to look for a wife for Izak.
And how REBECCA offered water, not only to the servant, but also for his 10 camels. A very generous gesture, if you keep in mind that each one of them probably drank 120 liters water, which had to be hoisted up from the well.
The story continues how Rebecca , mounted on a camel, left with the servant.
-- Proof of its early domestication and usefulness.

Archeological Research points to a far earlier period. Probably between 2700 and 2300BC
Since earliest times camels were used for warfare. There is a description of the Persian King Hormuz 4th who used 250,000 camels in his mountain force.

Marco Polo describes wild camels in China
In China they are used to transport mail and water

In Egypt and Yemen they are used to plough
In Antique Persia grilled camel was the special treat for royal occasions.
“Zaratustra” literally means “possessor of golden-yellow camels”

The Koran says that the camel is a gift from God and is an important and acceptable sacrifice.
Traditionally theWHEEL is regarded as man’s most important discovery, and the Camel is often described as one of God’s clumsiest creations. And yet, from the 3rd to the 5th centuries the wheel completely disappeared from the Muslim countries
- from Morocco to Afghanistan, to be replaced by none other than this versatile ship of the desert.
- And
- CAMEL CARAVANS became synonymous with trade and wealth.
Camels are intimately woven into the life and mysticism of the Bedouins
They are part of their love songs and songs of war.
In some cultures a camel can only be in your possession if a male child is born
The homes of most Bedouins I met consisted of woven camel wool tents. The wool can be plucked in spring - about 1kg per animal. Then is gets washed and spun and coloured . They also weave beautiful carpets.

Theoughout the ages artists have been inspired by their qualities.
Even Rembrandt made a sketch of a resting camel.
There are numerous colourful Persian art works from the 16th C which depict camels.
Early Christian art also honoured the camel. There is a sculpture of the 5th C martyr, the holy Menas, with a camel on either side.
Of the earliest published scientific work about camels, is an illustrated description of the single- and double humped camel which was written in German and published in 1649.

To summarize: The Bactrianus has 2 humps and occurs in the cold deserts of the Northern Hemisphere while the Dromedary has a single hump and is found in most Arab countries as well as in Africa - especially in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.
The word “Dromedary” comes from the Greek word DROMAS which means RUNNING.

No! It consists of solid fat. And, as is the case is man and other mammals, the fat reserves vary with food intake. Even a newly born calf has a little hump.
LIFE EXPECTANCY ? About 40 years, like horses
BREEDING SEASON . From November to May in the northern hemisphere - during winter months. The bull becomes extremely aggressive. One of the signs is a poll gland behind the ears which secretes a watery black fluid which is practically pure testosterone and……..

From time to time he blows a pink balloon from the mouth. It originates from a little pocket in the soft palate which gets inflated in some way. The Arabs call it a DULAA.

Camels do MASTICATE, LIKE CATTLE, BUT, although the toes are split, they do not have hooves. They have NAILS - AND THEREFORE not kosher.
SWEATING Camels can lose one third of their body weight if they are forced to be without water for some time. And then they can restore the loss by drinking up to 150 liters of water within 20 minutes. Other animals and humans will die if they do. The red blood cells will burst. The secret is that the red blood cells of camels are OVAL and not round. They can stretch 260% before they burst.
Their ability of handling desert TEMPERATURES is because their body temperature varies . It can be as low as 34 degrees in the morning - and then rise as the outside temperature goes up. This can be 41 or 42 degrees at midday. Only at that stage do they start sweating.

WEIGHT An average camel weighs 450 kg He can easily walk 30 to 40 km a day for months. The record is 850 km in 5 days.
A unique feature of camels which enables them to go and on without getting tired is the following: There is a thick ELASTIC layer under the skin over the joints of the limbs. As the animal stretches the leg and puts it on the ground, the elastic tissue, like a spring, passively bends the joint, without any muscular effort.
The LACTATING CAMEL COW will continue having milk even when it gets so hot that ordinary milk cows and goats dry up. No wonder the Arabs refer to the camel as the LACTATING PALM OF THE DESERT
Camel milk is indeed the staple food of desert people. It contains 3x more Vit.C than
Cows milk and one and a half times more than Mother’s milk.. Under intensive dairy conditions in Saudi Arabia, the daily production per cow can be 40liters. You may suggest a name for that. Shall we call it a DROME-DAIRY?
Calves are weaned at 9-11 months. The mother has a wonderful mechanism to aid the process. There is a strong flat muscle which runs from the udder to the belly button. When junior won’t let go, she simply contracts this muscle and, bingo! The teat is out of the calf’s mouth.

I hope I could convince you of the uniqueness of this amazing animal and of its contribution to the cultural history of the world.

Malie Smuts 9 May 2008

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