The domestication of the one-humped camel, the Arabian peninsula’s most iconic large mammal, is thought to have taken place in the region more than 5,000 years ago.
The Dromedary became the inseparable companion to the region’s Bedouin and is credited with aiding the Arab conquests that helped to spread Islam.
Yet, despite this long period of intertwined human and camel history, in modern times the dromedary has been much less intensively studied scientifically than other domesticated animals such as cattle or sheep.
To help redress this, Saudi Arabia has announced a major effort to intensify the study of the camel genome or its genetic material.
It is something that experts in the UAE say is of increasing importance because of climate change, as scientists look to analyse how the camel copes with extreme temperatures.
The genetic studies are being spearheaded by the International Camel Organisation, set up in the Kingdom in 2019, and are happening through the International Centre for Camel Research and Studies, which was reportedly founded in Riyadh in 2020.
“The ultimate objective is to revamp the camel sector and guarantee a sustainable development for its breeders,” the Saudi Press Agency reported this week.
The research push comes just months after the opening in Buraidah, north-west of Riyadh, of Salam Veterinary Hospital, described as the world's biggest camel hospital. The centre, which can accommodate as many as 4,000 animals, was opened in July 2020.
Camels have more than 20,000 genes in the DNA of their 74 chromosomes, and, like other complex organisms, also have genetic material in tiny energy-producing “organelles” inside cells called mitochondria.
Dr Ulrich Wernery, scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, which has carried out many scientific studies on camels, said that while there remained a lack of genetic research on camels, the field offered “great potential”.
More work was needed, he said, to understand what genetic data collected so far meant and how it might be used to improve the characteristics of camels. Doing this would require, he said, a huge effort.
“We have millions of pieces of data, but still we don’t know how many Old World [Dromedary and Bactrian] camel breeds exist, and which are the best milkers or racers, for example,” he said.
Saudi Arabian and Chinese scientists announced in 2010 they had sequenced the genome of the Dromedary, and in 2012 a team of mostly Chinese and Mongolian-based researchers published sequences of the wild and domestic Bactrian camel, which has two humps. The genome of the alpaca, a related animal, has also been decoded.
Researchers want to gain a better understanding of how particular genetic markers – stretches of DNA that vary between camels – are associated with traits. Just a few per cent as many such markers are known for camels compared to cattle or sheep.
Genetic variation can be detected by looking at, for example, microsatellites, which are repeated sections of DNA, and Random Amplified Polymorphic DNA (RAPD) markers, which target random DNA sequences in the genome.
Dr Abdul Raziq Kakar, technical manager for Al Ain Dairy’s camel farm, said the newly announced genetic research on the creatures in Saudi Arabia would “no doubt help the camel world”.
More broadly, he said there were many areas where better knowledge of camels was needed, notably in husbandry and characteristics of the animals linked to milk or meat production.
Ways of looking after camels under the “semi-intensive” conditions of farms are often based on what is known about cattle, he said.
“When you keep the camels in farms, they eat from very narrow diversity of food, they are prone to mineral, vitamin and other nutrient deficiencies which we don’t understand,” said Dr Kakar, who in 2015 set up an organisation, Camel4Life, to promote the use of camels by the world’s poorer communities.
“We don’t really know the nutrient requirements at the farm, the disease challenges, and the exact treatment and the impact of the treatment on milk production and milk quality. This is a huge area of research in camels.
“We really do not know the exact gene or genes that are responsible for more milk. We don’t know what’s the heritability of which trait. In cows, we know.”
Another area of interest, said Dr Kakar, is how camels cope with extreme temperatures, something of ever-greater relevance as the climate warms.
“Genetics is behind this very special trait of the camel to adapt to very high temperatures,” he said. “There’s much need to study specialised genes of the camel that make it such incredible, very special livestock.
“The same [is true] of the camel’s power to resist dehydration. The camel’s blood cells are very different – they can absorb more water.
“We should understand the camel better. This is very important for the future of humanity – how the camel can survive the very challenging climatic conditions.”