The Cama

 

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Emirates home to new hybrid species:
Cama

By Prof. Talaat I. Farag MD, FRCPE, FACP, FACMG
 

Dr. Lulu with her newborn cama, Kamilah
 

For millennia, the deserts were dominated by one resilient breed of animals. The Arabs called it the "desert ship" for its ability to withstand the harsh environmental conditions. And for hundreds of years, camel-racing has been a most favored sport. Today, the camel has a competitor. Recently in the Arabian Desert, a unique and artificial hybrid known as the "cama" was born. This specially-bred creature combines the best of both its parent animals - the camel and the llama. In Dubai, United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), a specialized veterinary center is mating the symbol of the desert, the camel, with the more exotic llama to produce "camas." The chief scientific officer Dr. Julian A. (Lulu) Skidmore at the Camel Reproduction Center (CRC) has been breeding Camas for the past five years seeking a unique animal with the sought-after coat of the lama and endurance of the larger camel. This project is funded by Dubai's Crown Prince and Defense Minister H. H. Sheik Mohamed bin Rashed al-Maktoum who was thrilled by the birth of the first male hybrid (January 14, 1998) named "Rama", and first female Cama four years later (February 27, 2002) named "Kamilah", which in Arabic means "perfect." Jokes aside, there is no doubt that both Rama and Kamilah are unique hybrid animals that shed new light on our understanding of mammalian evolution. 

Dr. Skidmore, a British veterinary who has been working for 12 years in the U.A.E., is convinced that both camels and llamas originated from the same ancient camelid. Although camels and llamas hail from East and West respectively, they are both descendents of the same ancestral camelid that inhabited the Rocky Mountains area of North America some 30 million years ago. Some of them migrated to Mongolia via Alaska and Siberia, evolving into the Bactrian two-humped camel. Others headed to the south to populate the Saudi Arabian peninsula, Iran and Pakistan, where they became the smaller one-humped dromedary. It is thought that camels might first have reached North Africa by human intervention, as they were not recorded in Egypt at the time of the Pharaohs. More camelids went to South America's Andes Mountains, where they were domesticated by the Ancient Incas into llamas. 

Today, the camel family comprises two species of Old World Camelids, namely the Bactrian or two-humped camel and the dromedary or one-humped camel and four species of New World camelids, the llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuna. All four kinds of these camelids can be made to hybridize with each other. Despite their close links, camels and llamas do not mate in the wild although they can be readily cross-bred as they have the same diploid chromosome number of 2n=74. "The fact that we have now been able to obtain a viable hybrid between a New World camelid (llama) and an Old World camelid (camel) is very exciting," explained Dr. Skidmore. "We're getting the best of both breeds: the fleece of the llamas is very expensive and desired by the wool industry while the strength and patience of the camel makes the cama an ideal pack animal," she added.

The project director Dr Lulu Skidmore, worked alongside technical assistant Mr. Tipu Billah. Dr A.M. Billah and both Prof. Twink Allen, from Cambridge University, and Prof. R.V. Short, of the University of Melbourne in Australia, acted as project advisors.


Rama at different stages in his life.

The birth of Rama in 1998 was considered a "30 million old miracle" being the world’s first viable hybrid between a camel and a guanaco, the wild antecedent of the domesticated llama. A miracle is an understatement since it illustrated the success of hybridizing a New World and an Old World camelid after 30- 40 million years of genetic isolation.

Like the first cama, Rama, Kamilah’s conception was also made possible by the use of modern reproductive techniques. Follicle development in the ovaries of her mother (a llama) was monitored by ultrasound and, when a mature follicle was detected, she was inseminated with fresh dromedary camel semen collected in an artificial vagina. Since all camelids are bred through induced ovulation, they require the stimulus of natural mating to release the egg from the follicle. The llama was injected with a hormone, called gonadotrophin-releasing hormone, to induce ovulation when she was inseminated. The pregnancy was monitored by ultrasound at regular intervals and gestation was uneventful. Kamilah was born after 343 days, which is within the typical range for the llama (335 - 360 days), but is much shorter than the gestation period in the camel (385-395 days). She weighed only 5 kg at birth which is less than a newborn llama at around 10kg and very much less than a newborn camel at 30kg. It is a striking illustration of how the size of the mother controls the size of the newborn, irrespective of the size of the father. Kamilah will also have a good quality coat and a size somewhere between her 85-kg 7-year-old llama mother Fenella and 500-kg 15-year-old camel father Khawar

Dr. Lulu is hopeful that Kamilah will maintain the good quality fleece of the llamas that can be clipped and used in the wool trade as well as have the strength of the camels to make her a useful pack animal. 


(L-R) Close up of Kamilah and Kamilah with mother.

When discussing the camas, Dr. Lulu Skidmore sounds like a mother talking about her cute children. "Rama is quite boastful and full of himself, and Kamilah, however, is a bit shy." Like most parents, Skidmore does not know how the offspring will turn out, but the scientist in her knows that their existence is as important as their future. "Whatever happens, we have another 30 million-year-old miracle baby," she said of Kamilah. "We have the world's only camas."

It will be interesting to see if her behavior is more llama-like and her vocalizations are more camel-like, as indeed are Rama's. Although scientists are more interested to know more about the mating of Rama and Kamilah and possibility of offspring, especially since some have linked Camas to mules (the horse-donkey hybrid), with regards to sterility because of the inability to pair homologous chromosomes from the two parental species during meiosis. But whatever happens, the camas' mother, Dr. Lulu, mentioned that there are other miracle babies on the way.

Interestingly, in Manitoba, Canada, many cattle producers are turning to llamas for security instead of dogs. Llamas have been used as pack animals in the South American Andes for six thousands years. The South American pack animals eat and sleep like sheep and protect the animals as their own. Some farmers prefer them to guard instead of dogs, since they don't bark and cost nothing. The llamas never leave the sheep alone, while the dog will roam and then come back to be fed.  In the absence of other llamas, they will strongly identify with other animals, with which they spend time. Recently in North America, llamas have been used to guard sheep, ducks and cattle. The only concern is that many male llamas try to mate with cattle and sheep!

Could the exotic cama hybrid provide a better alternative for even llamas in North and South American farms? 
Will the UAE become an exporter of camas alongside oil? Only time can answer these candid questions!

Another interesting site with other hybrid animals can be accessed at http://www.greenapple.com/~jorp/amzanim/crossesa.htm 

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Prof. Talaat I. Farag MD, FRCP(Edin), FACP, FACMG is an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, CANADA. Email: tfarag@is.dal.ca and drfarag@ambassadors.net

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