Dear Straight Dope: Could you please answer this question, as I have searched the web and an unable to find an answer anywhere. Is it true that the only animal that cannot swim is a camel? Roddy and Stewart
SDStaff Jillgat replies:
This is really a two-part question: 1. Can camels swim? 2. Are there other animals that cannot?
A number of eyewitnesses have confirmed to me that camels can indeed swim. At least the dromedaries (Camelus dromedarius) can, and we can probably assume that the bactrians (Camelus bactrianus) can, too. (One bump in a D, two bumps in a B, that’s how I always remember that.)
How did I find so many eyewitnesses, you ask? It turns out camel racing is a huge sport in some Arab countries and — get this — in Australia. Some Australians apparently even transport their camel mounts to the Middle East to compete in races. Philip Gee, a camel rancher in Australia, told me, “Camels can definitely swim. I saw it myself two weeks ago when a young camel ran into a waterhole and swam to the other side.”
One of my other camel connections, camel veterinarian Dr. Ahmed Tibary of Washington State University, tells me that there is a large camel racing facility in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which includes a therapy pool used to train and rehabilitate racing camels. All racing camels are dromedaries, but Dr. Tibary says he’s seen bactrian camels immerse themselves in deep water in the summertime.
Camel colleague Dr. T.K. Gahlot, a veterinarian in India and editor of the Journal of Camel Practice and Research (JCPR) — I’m telling you, I researched this sucker — writes, “You can see colour pictures of camels swimming in a swimming pool in one of the announcements of the First International Camel Conference held in Dubai from Feb. 2-6, 1992.” (I like that about the conference. Brings up a visual of Joe Camel and his pals, smoking in the hotel bar.) He also quotes one of his books as saying, “When deep rivers are to be crossed by swimming, it is best to let the camel cool down by giving him rest before the crossing is made.”
And then there is this, from Animal Management prepared in the Veterinary Department of the War Office [I presume this is the British war office] by command of the Army Council, by H.J. Creedy, published 31st March 1933 (Indian reprint 1941), in a chapter entitled “Marching with Camels,” page 301:
“If obliged, he [the camel] is a good, strong swimmer, but will not enter the water unless compelled. When out of his depth, only the head is above water, and if not interfered with he can swim a considerable distance, and has been seen to cross the Nile at Wady Halfa, where the stream is very broad, and the current powerful.” Thanks to my camel compadre Wolfgang Reusse for hunting that down for me.
As for non-swimming species, I wasn’t able to find such conclusive answers. I think the assumption that camels can’t swim may come from the fact that there is little deep water in their natural desert habitats in Africa and Asia, so why would they ever need to? But I’ve spent time on a couple of islands surrounded by deep water where most of the human inhabitants were non-swimmers. I called the mammal curator of the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tom Silva (you remember him from my “Can elephants jump” column). According to Tom, most large primates such as gorillas and orangutans cannot swim, partly because their centers of gravity are in their necks and sternums. “They sink like stones,” says Tom. He says he has seen chimpanzees swim, though.
I’m skeptical about the center of gravity thing — humans and gorillas aren’t built that much differently, and we manage to swim OK. But I do know that some humans, those having low body fat for example, have a tough time staying afloat. Maybe gorillas are (or perhaps I should say, need to be) in the same boat.
One website I found said, “the long-nosed armadillo of South America is the only armadillo species that can swim, inflating its stomach and intestine with air to improve buoyancy.” Couldn’t find any more proof that the other types can’t, though. Any uh y’all Okies care to drop a seven-banded armadillo in a lake for me? Another guy said, “I seriously doubt that sloths can swim” but this again is speculation. One website specifically denied that bats can swim, but on another bat site, in a list of interesting trivia, was the “fact” that they can swim (keep in mind however that there are 800 or so species of bats, so there may be variation). Eagles, too: can swim/can’t swim both claimed on the internet.
So my simple answer to your question, Roddy, is this: camels can swim and gorillas can’t. Don’t know about the rest.
SDStaff Jillgat, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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