On March 3, 1855, the United States Congress earmarked $30,000 for camels. This was thanks to Jefferson Davis, acting as secretary of war before he would turn against his country in the Civil War. It might sound strange, but commissioning an expedition to round up some camels for the United States wasn’t a bad idea. America’s great southwestern desert beckoned for inclusion into the union, and what better animals for soldiers to ride into the arid frontier than camels? Thus the United States Camel Corps was formed. Unbeknownst to the military men behind the effort, this was actually an early — and totally unintentional — experiment in something called "rewilding. "
Even though camels might bring to mind today's dromedaries of Africa, Bactrians of Asia and guanacos of South America, the fact of the matter is that camels first evolved in North America around 50 million years ago. The first were about the size of a rabbit, but in time they evolved into a variety of sizes — including some that were giraffe-like in stature — as species crossed land bridges to other continents. By about 8,000 years ago, though, the last of North America’s camels had died out.
Unbeknownst to Davis, when the Camel Corps arrived in Indianola, Tex., with 34 camels, they were returning the animals to the soil of their distant ancestors.
During the Civil War, though, the U.S. military lost interest in camels. Some were sold and others went feral, finding America’s scrubby deserts quite comfortable for decades after their release.
And that is what interested ecologists. On a geologic time scale, camels practically disappeared from North America earlier this week. If modern camels were intentionally brought back to take the place of their long-lost relatives, could transplanted animals help spur a return to a time when great beasts used to roam the continent?
Conservationists Meredith Root-Bernstein and Jens-Christian Svenning considered the question in a recent issue of Journal of Arid Environments. While rewilding is often framed in terms of bringing certain species to new habitats to replace their lost relatives, this isn’t actually the end goal. The point, Root-Bernstein and Svenning write, is to use carefully selected species that provide “ecosystem services” that enrich habitats.
Camels, the researchers write, could change their habitats in a variety of ways. Much of that change has to do with what goes into a camel and what comes out the other end. The fact that camels often drink brackish water and eat salty plants, for example, means they can spread salt over the landscape. Some plant seeds might have a better chance at germinating after spending some time traversing a camel’s digestive system. Not to mention the fact that adding another big herbivore to the ecosystem means more food for predators and scavengers.
There might be drawbacks to bringing camels back to North America, though. Camels can take on a wide variety of plants, including those with prickly thorns and other defenses, and this, Root-Bernstein and Svenning write, means that camels “may be prone to destroy plants that are not adapted to intensive grazing or browsing.” And as with wild horses — another unanticipated experiment in rewilding — camels might aid the spread of invasive species, chewing through native plants while leaving dung piles that could help spread the seeds of competing species.
“A stumbling block in the use of camelids for rewilding is the relative lack of research on camelid functions in ecosystems,” Root-Bernstein and Svenning write. Exactly what camels would do requires more careful observation and experimentation. Nevertheless, camels still provide a possibility to enrich ecosystems that have suffered from the wants and needs of our own species. It wouldn’t be a return to the Pleistocene epoch, but perhaps a few camels could help foster a wilder future.