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Keith Bellows on the camel's hump

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[SHIT] This is arguably the back end of the design of animals. (Laughter) But the reason I put this up here is because when I was in Africa last year, my wife and I were driving around, we had this wonderful guide, who showed us something that surprised both of us, and it was very revealing in terms of the fascination that comes with the design of animals. It turns out that in about the 1880s, the missionaries came to Africa to spread the word of Christianity, to teach English to the natives. And they brought blackboards and chalk. And I'd like you to imagine that that's a blackboard, and I just used some chalk on there. And they brought quite a bit of this stuff. But over the years, the blackboards were fine, but they ran out of chalk. And this is a real crisis for them.

And that's where the hyena comes in. The hyena is probably the most perfectly designed scavenging animal in the world. It strip-mines carcasses, and it has amazing teeth, because it enables the hyena to essentially eat bones. Now, the end product of that action is up on the board here. And what the missionaries would do is, they'd walk around and they'd pick up hyena shit. And the incredible thing about hyena shit is, it makes great chalk. (Laughter)

Now, that's not what I'm here to talk about, but it is a fascinating aspect of animal design. What I'm here to talk about is the camel. When I started talking to Richard about what I was going to speak about, I had recently come back from Jordan, where I had an amazing experience with a camel. (Laughter) And we were in the desert --

Richard Wurman: That's the end of this talk!

Keith Bellows: Yeah, yeah. We were in the desert, in Wadi Rum, in a small Jeep. There were four of us -- two Bedouin drivers -- and you can just imagine, this expanse is an ocean of sand, 105 degrees, one water bottle. And we were driving in what they told us was their very, very best Jeep. Didn't look like it to me. And as we started to go through the desert, the Jeep broke down. The guys got out, they put the hood up, they started working under the hood, got it going again. About a hundred yards, it broke down. This went on about six or seven times, and we were getting more and more alarmed, and we were also getting deeper and deeper into the desert.

And eventually, our worst nightmare happened: they flooded the engine. And they said, "Ah, no problem! We just get out and walk." And we said, "We get out and walk?" One water bottle -- remember, guys -- four people. And they said, "Yeah, yeah, we'll walk. We'll find some camels." So we got out and walked, and sure enough, about half a mile, we came over the crest of this hill, and there was a huge gathering of Bedouin with their camels. The guy went up and started dickering, and 10 dollars later, we had four camels. They went down like elevators; we got on them. They went back up, and the Bedouin -- each Bedouin, four of them -- got behind each of the camels with a little whip. And they started slashing away at the back of the camels, and they started galloping. And if you've ever been on a camel, it is a very, very uncomfortable ride. There's also one other aspect about these camels. About every 10 steps, they lean back and try to take a chunk out of your leg. (Laughter)

So we kept on going, and this camel kept on trying to take a chunk out of my leg. And eventually, three miles later, we arrived at our destination, where a Jeep was supposed to meet us. And the camels come down again like elevators, we sort of clumsily get off, and they -- obviously -- try to take another chunk out of my leg. And I've developed a very wonderful relationship with this creature by this point, and I've realized that this is a mean son of a bitch. And much meaner, by the way, than the Bedouin who greeted me and tried to sell me one of his 26 daughters to take back to the States.

So as we talked, Richard and I, I said, "You know, maybe I should bring a camel. I think the camel is the best designed animal in the world." And he kind of went, "Nah. I don't think we want to be bringing a camel." And you should be really glad we decided not to bring the camel. So I did the next best thing. I went to the Washington Zoo. Richard said, "I want you to get up close and personal with this camel. I want you to inspect its mouth, look at its teeth. Go underneath it. Go above it. Go around it. Pull its tail up; take a look in there. I want you to get as close to that camel as you possibly can."

So, I got a National Geographic film crew. We went down there, and I took one look at this camel. It is a 2,000 pound creature who is in rut. (Laughter) Now, if you've ever seen a 2,000 pound camel in a rut, it is a scary, scary thing to behold. And if Richard thought I was getting in the ring with that camel, someone was smoking Bedouin high grade. (Laughter) So we got as close to it as possible, and I'm going to share this -- Chris, if you want to roll this film -- and then I'm going to show you a little bit more about the design of camels. Do you want to roll the film?

(Video) Hello. This is Keith Bellows with the National Geographic Camel Investigation Unit. I'm here to look at the ultimate desert machine. And you'll note I started chewing gum because I was around this camel all day. Senior Keeper: That's it, that's it, OK. No! See, now he's getting a little overexcited. So we'll need to be very careful around him. Don't let him get you. Now, you can see copious amounts of saliva in there. [Unclear] I call myself the unstable stable boy. Their nose -- you can see his nose is flared right now. When they're in rut -- they're similar to seals in the way, like, a seal has to open its nose to breathe. And they're similar. They have to kind of consciously open their nose. Ears? They are small. But they have excellent hearing. But not a big -- for instance, in zebras, they have a huge ear that's very mobile, so they can actually turn them both around. And they use them in the same way we use our binocular vision. They use them to pinpoint sound. The desert's extremely windy as well as being very cold. So not only do they have the very long eyelashes, but there's the secondary -- I guess you'd call it the [unclear] or whatever. It's this hair that's above the eyes, and below it it's longer.

Most people think that the humps store water. They don't. They store fat. But -- now, I'm not a chemist, but basically what happens is the fat is oxidized by their breathing. And that will turn it into actually usable water. Like a lot of predators, they walk on their toes. But there's a big, fat pad in there that squishes out. They're like sun shoes, but, you know, with sand. Hooves? They don't have traditional hooves, but they do have one, like, big nail. You can't really see too clear. The fur's kind of grown over. But they use their tails a lot, especially in rut. He will urinate and spin his tail to spread the urine around and make him more attractive. I don't know why that would be, but it works for them. (Laughter) So, what the hell.

Now, they will also defecate in certain areas. Generally, they poop wherever they want to, but during their rut, they will defecate in perimeter areas. I don't know if you've read or heard about the sub-sonic sounds from elephants -- you know what I mean, like, "Br-r-r!" These big, big rumbling sounds. He will do the same thing. You can actually see, right here, it will vibrate. We weigh our animals. Unfortunately, he's a very aggressive animal, so he's actually destroyed some of the scales. We had these big things that I weigh the bison on, for instance. I'm guessing that he -- well, he's at least 1,600 pounds. But I would put him closer to 2,000. He's basically a walking mulch pile. We're kind of like buds, but I'm also a male as well and he's -- KB: He sees you as competition? Senior Keeper: Yeah, exactly. And it makes him very dangerous at this time of year. Don't even think about it. Don't think about it!

But now, we're going to meet -- out! Out! Out! No. Out! (Applause) KB: What I didn't show you was -- you got that swinging thing going? Well -- and you're glad I didn't show you this. One of the other things about the camel's beautiful design is that its penis points backwards. That way the camel can dip its tail in the stream, and just whacker the entire area around him. And that's how he really marks his territory. Now, what you also didn't see was that -- and you may have noticed in the pen beside him and, by the way, the camel's name is Suki. In the pen beside him is Jasmine. Jasmine has been his mate for some time. But on this particular occasion, it was very, very clear that as horny as Suki was, Jasmine was having none of it. And so we started thinking. Well, if poor old Suki is in search of a mate, what would Suki do to find the perfect mate?

So I'm going to show you another film. But before I do, I just want to mention that this animal truly is a sort of the SUV of the sand, the ship of the desert. It's so vital to the inhabitants of the areas in which the camel is found -- largely Mongolia and Sahara -- that there are 160 words in Arabic to describe the camel. And if this is a creature that was designed by committee, it's certainly been like no committee I've ever been on. So here's what Suki would do in search of a mate. Can you roll it, please?

(Video) Camel seeking camel. Lusty beast desires attractive & sincere mate. I'm seven ft., 2,000 lbs., with brown hair/eyes, long legs ... and I'm very well ... hung. I'm TED Camel. The perfect desert machine. I'm smartly designed. Eyelashes that keep out sand and a third eyelash that works like a windshield wiper. A distinguished nose, with nostrils lined to filter out sand and dust, and a groove that catches moisture. Amazingly full lips that allow me to eat practically anything that grows. Callouses on my knees that let me kneel comfortably. Leathery chest pads that beat the heat. Short fur that keeps my skin cool. Long legs that allow heat to escape. And my hump? Ogden Nash once wrote: "the camel has a single hump; the dromedary two, or else the other way around. I'm never sure. Are you?" Here's a hint: Bactarian, Dromedary. My hump contains up to 80 lbs. of fat -- but doesn't store H2O. I'm built to last. I'm the go-to animal when the oasis is dry. I usually won't sweat until my body reaches 105 degrees F -- enough to fry an egg. I'm able to lose 40 percent of my weight without dying. (Most animals would if they lost half that much.) I'll drink five to seven gallons of water a day. But go without for more than a month. I'm powerful. Able to pack up to 400 lbs. of cargo, outrun a horse and cover 26 miles on a good day. Camelot. Jackie O. once said that traveling by camel made riding an elephant seem like taking a jet plane. Yet my large, soft feet allow me to navigate sand. (Is that why the Bedouin claim I can dance?) I'm a good provider, too. Bedouins call the camel the Gift of God. No surprise. Tents and rugs are made of my hair. My dried bones are prized as a sort of ivory. My dung is burned as fuel. My milk is used for cheese. "Camels are like angels," a Bedouin once said.


Thank you. I just want to leave you with one last thought, which is probably the most important thing to take away. Humans -- the animal -- are pretty lucky creatures because, by and large, we really don't have to adapt to our environment; we adapt our environment to us. And we've seen that repeatedly through this conference -- not just this year, but in past years. But this creature that you've just seen ultimately adapts, and keeps adapting and adapting. And I think when you look at the animal kingdom, that is one of the most remarkable things. It doesn't have an environment that adapts to it; it has to adapt to the environment. Ricky, thank you very much for having me. RW: That's terrific. Thank you.

Video Details

Duration: 15 minutes and 49 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
License: Dotsub - Standard License
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 211
Posted by: tedtalks on Jan 7, 2009

Keith Bellows gleefully outlines the engineering marvels of the camel, a vital creature he calls "the SUV of the desert." Though he couldn't bring a live camel to TED, he gets his camera crew as close as humanly possible to a one-ton beast in full rut.

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