by Paul Taylor
At 11am on January 14, 1998, at the Camel Reproduction Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Rama the Cama was born - the world's first viable cross between an Old World camel and a South American camelid. These two branches of the family Camelidae have been separated for millions of years.
The feat was accomplished by Dr. Lulu Skidmore, a British researcher in camel reproduction and resident Director of the Centre (for an in-depth look at Lulu and her work see the excellent article by Cullen Murphy in the October '99 issue of Atlantic Monthly). Lulu and her team collected semen from a dromedary camel bull by interposing an artificial vagina as he mounted a receptive female camel. This technique of semen collection in camels has been known and used for many years by camel researchers.
What is new and unique in this case is that this fresh camel semen was then deposited in the uterus of a ready-to-ovulate female guanaco. Guanacos belong to the group of South American camelids, which also includes llamas, alpacas and vicuñas. Because there was no natural breeding to cause ovulation (all members of the camel family normally ovulate in response to the stimulus of breeding), the female received an injection of gonadotrophin releasing hormone. This induced ovulation and ensured normal preparation of her uterus to receive an embryo. The compatibility of the genetics from the two species involved allowed the rest of the process of production of new life to proceed without intervention or assistance.
The baby, a male weighing 5.5 kg (about 12 lbs) at birth, was delivered naturally after only 328 days of gestation. This is less than the normal full-term gestation for a guanaco (335-360 days) and far less than the normal gestation for camels (385 days). He was slightly immature at birth, with no eruption of his incisor teeth. It was several hours before he could stand. Unfortunately his mother had no milk, and she took little interest in him, forcing his keepers to bottle feed him with fresh camel milk.
At birth, Rama looked slightly more like his massive 990 lb dromedary father. He had the short ears and long tail of a camel, whereas guanacos have long ears and a relatively short tail. However, he had the double footpads of a guanaco which are quite unlike the single footpad of the camel.
The low birthweight of the baby is a dramatic illustration that the size of the mother determines the size of the baby, irrespective of the size of the father. Still, his premature birth may indicate that there were some late-term stresses resulting from the great size disparity between his parents.
Though production of the camel/lama cross was achieved by a relatively simple technique, it was by no means easy. Lulu did more than forty cross-species inseminations to produce this single live birth. Six other hybrid pregnancies developed, but three of these were resorbed before the heartbeat started (30 days after conception) and the other three resulted in late-term fetal death or stillbirth. Some of these ill-fated pregnancies resulted from camel females receiving guanaco semen. All three of the late-term babies who died were females.
The success of this project fuels discussion about the close genetic ties among all members of the family Camelidae. The ancestors of all the world's camelids originated in North America some 40 million years ago. About 3 million years ago some of them migrated across a land bridge from Alaska to Siberia and then on to Mongolia. This was to become the home of the largest camelid, the two-humped Bactrian camel, which can weigh nearly 3,000 lbs. A further migration to the southwest introduced populations of the smaller one-humped dromedary camel to the Saudi-Arabian peninsula, Iran, Pakistan and part of northern India. 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 Pharoahs.
Other camelids migrated from North America into the Andes Mountains of South America. It is believed that the ancestors of the Incas domesticated the guanaco more than five thousand years ago and selectively bred it to produce the modern llama. The vicuña is thought to be the progenitor of the present-day alpaca. All four species can readily hybridize with one another and produce fertile offspring. Fertile offspring also result from crosses between the Bactrian and dromedary camels. All the camelids, New World and Old World, have the same diploid chromosome number (2n=74). (See "Breeds or Species", an article by Eric Hoffman in this issue of Alpaca Registry Journal).
It remains to be seen whether Rama will be fertile, but Lulu expects that this cross, like that between a horse and a donkey, will be sterile due to failure to pair homologous chromosomes from the two parental species during meiosis.
If he is found to be fertile it would open the door to all sorts of mix-and-match crosses and re-crosses between either of the Old World camels and any of the South American camelids. Nobody can predict what sorts of animals could result. Some of the characteristics that might be sought after and bred for include fine fiber production (alpaca and vicuña), the ability to carry a rider or cargo (dromedary and Bactrian camels), racing ability (dromedary camel) and tractability (llama). One can imagine a gentle mid-size riding animal that gives milk, produces fine fiber and low-cholesterol meat, can easily be kept in extremes of heat and cold and can go for days without water.
The dromedary half of the equation that produced Rama is common in Dubai, but it was only after the Shaikh of Dubai (His Highness General Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai) developed an interest in the creation of a cross between a camel and a llama that someone realized there were llamas running wild on the grounds of his Desert Palace. The details of how these animals came to be in Dubai and exactly where they came from are not clear. It seems that a group of llamas and guanacos arrived as a gift to the current Shaikh's grandfather, probably from the government of Peru, early in the last century. The llamas gradually died out in the terrible heat of the Arabian summers, leaving only a population of 40 or so guanacos. The llamas and guanacos apparently had interbred to some extent, because some of the surviving guanacos show irregular patches of white on their faces and bodies.
At the time of this writing Rama is approaching 2 years of age. Because his guanaco mother rejected him he was raised by humans and bottle-fed with camel milk. He has not been accepted by the camels or the guanacos at the Centre. Now considerably larger and heavier than an adult guanaco, he is still growing. He shows an interest in the females of both species, but, not surprisingly, he just doesn't know how to act with them. He tries to mount the female guanacos, though he often climbs on from the wrong end if he can get them down.
Lulu has become familiar with guanacos during the course of this project and she feels that much of Rama's behavior, like vocalizations and posturing, is in-between the behaviors of his parents' species. His appearance is also mixed. He has the heavy bone and knobby knees of a camel and the face and coat of a guanaco. The short ears, long tail and the two-toed feet evident at his birth persist, and he has just the suggestion of a hump at the withers.
As more time passes some of the questions remaining about this cross will be answered. Lulu and others will want to continue to study him. There is some interest to investigate his mitochondrial DNA, which should be derived entirely from his guanaco mother. Attempts to produce additional hybrids continue.
Rama seems to be fairly happy, if somewhat bored. He plays for hours with a soccer ball, repeatedly booting it through the air and often depositing it in his water trough. Probably he is lonely and one has to have some sympathy for him in this predicament. There is not another creature like him on earth.