Camel DNA Shows Ancient Trade Routes

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Scientists have produced the results of a recent study which suggests that the genetic diversity of the dromedary camel is shaped by trade routes from ancient times.

The dromedary camel is one of the world’s most important domesticated animals. During the study scientists looked at DNA samples from over 1,000 of the single-humped camels, writes Victoria Gill for BBC News.

Genetic shuffling means that camels are remarkably similar

The dromedary is one of the largest domesticated animals in the world, and is used in arid and hostile environments to provide food and transport. The study shows how long-distance, repeated journeys influenced the genetic diversity of the species.

Researchers looked at populations that were hundreds of miles apart, but still shared many of the same genes. They suggest that hundreds of years of cross-continental trade caused a “blurring” of genetics among camels.

The full findings of the study can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Trade routes influence genetic blurring

Study author Professor Olivier Hanotte, from Nottingham University, said that the camels are interesting due to their close link to the history of humans. “They have moved with people, through trading,” he told BBC News. “So by analysing dromedaries, we can find a signature of our own past.”

In order to find this signature the researchers compared DNA samples from populations from across the range of camel habitats. “Our international collaboration meant we were able to get samples from West Africa, Pakistan, Oman and even Syria,” Prof Hanotte explained.

Evidence suggests that camels were first used as beasts of burden around 3,000 years ago, lasting until well into the 20th Century. Huge caravans of thousands of animals were not uncommon in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

“People would travel hundreds of miles with their camels carrying all their precious goods. And when they reached the Mediterranean, the animals would be exhausted,” Professor Hanotte explained. “So they would leave those animals to recover and take new animals for their return journey.”

Humans could benefit from camel meat and milk

This practice means that a process of genetic “shuffling” took place over hundreds of years, resulting in camel populations that share DNA despite being separated by huge distances. Another interesting factor is how this practice has maintained genetic diversity among the dromedaries.

Camels were constantly being mixed together, and as a result are likely more able to adapt to changing environments. “Climate change, for example, is characterised by rising temperatures, more extreme weather patterns and more areas becoming less suitable for livestock,” said Professor Hanotte.

“The dromedary will be our better option for livestock production – of meat and milk,” he continued. “It could replace cattle and even sheep and goats that are less well-adapted.”

Many people may find the idea of eating camel steaks fairly strange, but the practice may become increasingly common. As climate change continues to exert an influence on the environment, species that are more adaptable will have an advantage over those that aren’t.

It might not be too long before you are pouring camels’ milk over your cornflakes in the morning, with cows less likely to be able to adapt to changing conditions. It may seem unlikely now, but our habit of using camels to transport goods over hundreds of years means that we have turned them into a usefully adaptable species in a changing world.

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