The desert — a dry, seemingly uninhabitable region of the world. Defined as regions with less than 10 inches of annual rainfall, you would expect there to be very little life to be found in the desert. However, deserts throughout the world abound with living things! The biodiversity of any desert is dependent, of course, on rainfall as well as vegetative cover. The drier the desert, the fewer plant and animal species that will be found there.
To be able to live and thrive in such a hostile environment — searing drought, high winds, intense heat or cold — plants and animal species that inhabit deserts have developed any number of unique adaptations as well as specific strategies for dealing with their harsh living conditions.
The secret life of plants
Plants that live in hot deserts must be able to deal with high temperatures and very little water. Over time, shrubs and plants have evolved to minimize water loss as well as effectively manage whatever water they do get. Cacti, for example, don’t have leaves, but, instead, have spines which protect them from being eaten and help to minimize water loss.
Other desert shrubs have long tap roots that extend down to reach the water table or have thick leaves and stems, like the succulents, that can store water. Some even shrink during dry spells, and expand during wet periods. Many plants have leaves that are small and coated with a “waxy” waterproofing material to prevent excess water loss and are a gray-green color to reflect the sun’s light.
If you’re lucky enough to visit a desert after a late fall or early winter storm, you will be rewarded with a desert that has burst into bloom with hundreds of different species of beautiful wildflowers, creating a riotous carpet of color where it seemed like nothing could ever grow.
Animals living in the desert also have many physiological as well as anatomical adaptations to drought and extreme temperature changes. Many, like the turkey vulture, can go without “free” water, but instead obtain water from the food they eat. Others, such as the kangaroo rat, block off the entrance of their underground dens to keep out the hot midday sun, recycling the moisture from their own breathing. Many other desert animals obtain water from plants, particularly succulents. Insect-eating birds, bats, and lizards thrive by eating insects that have extracted water from the leaves and fruits of plants.
Time is of the essence
One important adaptation of many desert animals is that they are crepuscular, only active at dusk and dawn, or are completely nocturnal. As the air and ground cool, a plethora of nocturnal animals emerge from all of their hiding places to look for water, food, and maybe even a mate. The nighttime desert is filled with the sounds of all sorts of mammals, birds, and insects that have been resting quietly during the hot daytime hours.
Nighttime is the optimal time for the wide variety of snakes and lizards that inhabit the desert to become active. From coral snakes and kingsnakes to rattlesnakes and gopher snakes to coyotes, owls, jackrabbits, tarantulas, and bobcats, the desert comes alive at night!