Genetic history of the 'ship of the desert' revealed

09 May 2016 20:00:00.000


A unique and pioneering study of the ancient and modern DNA of the ‘ship of the desert’ — the single humped camel or dromedary — has shed new light on how its use by human societies has shaped its genetic diversity. 

For the first time, an international team of geneticists led by The University of Nottingham, the University of Veterinary Medicine (Vienna) and King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia, have shown how important long-distance and back-and-forth movements in ancient camel caravan routes were in shaping the species’ genetic diversity. The research is published in a top scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA. 

Single-humped ‘Arabian camels’, properly known as ‘dromedaries’ (Camelus dromedarius), have been fundamental to the development of human societies, providing food and transport in desert countries, for over 3000 years. The dromedary continues to be a vital resource in trade and agriculture in hot, dry areas of the world, providing transport, milk and meat where other species would not survive. In the current context of climate change and advancing desert landscapes, the animal’s importance is increasing and there is new interest in the biology and reproduction of the species.

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The researchers have collected and analysed genetic information from a sample of 1,083 living dromedaries from 21 countries across the world. The team combined this with an examination of ancient DNA sequences from bone samples from early-domesticated dromedaries from 400-1870AD and wild ones from 5,000-1,000BC to reveal for the first time ever an historic genetic picture of the species. 

Professor of Genetics and Conservation, Olivier Hanotte, from the School of Life Sciences at Nottingham, said: “Our analysis of this extensive dataset actually revealed that there is very little defined population structure in modern dromedaries. We believe this is a consequence of cross-continental back and forth movements along historic trading routes. Our results point to extensive gene flow which affects all regions except East Africa where dromedary populations have remained relatively isolated.” 

Dr Faisal Almathen from the Department of Veterinary Health and Animal Husbandry at King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia, added: “The dromedary has outperformed all other domesticated mammals, including the donkey, in arid environments and continues to provide essential commodities to millions of people living in marginal agro-ecological areas. The genetic diversity we have discovered, thanks to restocking from wild ‘ghost’ dromedary populations, is quite remarkable in the history of its domestication. It underlines the animal’s potential to adapt sustainably to future challenges of expanding desert areas and global climate change.” 

The full PNAS paper is available here: Ancient and modern DNA reveal dynamics of domestication and cross-continental dispersal of the dromedary, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…


Story credits

More information is available from Professor Olivier Hanotte in
the School of Life Sciences, University of Nottingham on +44 (0)754 951 3256 or + 251 (0) 966 216540,

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