Research team discovers new large mammal species in China

A Chinese-British expedition has discovered a new species of two-humped camel living in the sand dunes on the edge of the Tibetan mountains, which can survive on salt water.

Genetic testing on a wild bactrian two-humped camel population in the middle of the inhospitable and dangerous Kum Tagh sand dunes in China’s Xinjiang province has found that they are distinctly different from domesticated two-humped camels.

“There is indeed genetic variation between the wild and domesticated two humped camel,” said Professor Olivier Hanotte, a molecular geneticist from the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and one of the leaders of the research team. “There are two possibilities here. One is that the domestic camel was bred from these wild ones sometime back in history. So when we look at these wild camels found in China we may be looking at the ancestor of the domestic camel, rather like wolves are the ancestors of dogs.”

“The second possibility is that the domestic camel we see today was bred from another species that has disappeared. This would mean that these wild camels found by the expedition in China and the population in Mongolia are a totally separate species,” he said.

The species is thought to exist in two populations, one of 600 individuals in China, and a further 300 in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. There are also 15 individuals held in captivity. “If these wild camels become extinct then we do not have the numbers or the genetic diversity among those in captivity to guarantee a successful captive breeding programme,” said John Hare, joint expedition leader and founder of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation. “That makes them more endangered than the Giant Panda.”

The animals are adapted to survive on salt water bubbling up from beneath the desert. “These camels can withstand enormous physiological stress,” said Kate Rae, of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation. “Scientists are extremely interested to know how their liver, kidneys and lungs can withstand the salt without killing these wild camels.”

The expedition was funded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “I am delighted that we have been able to play a role in these new wildlife discoveries,” said Klaus Topfer, Executive director of UNEP. “We have many responsibilities but these include helping protect the world’s animals and plants. The discovery of these camels underlines that the natural world still has many secrets and surprises which enrich our knowledge of the earth and our understanding of nature.”

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