Deserts are some of the most extreme environments found on earth. Scorching temperatures and water scarcity make it all but impossible for most animals to live there. Yet, some animals thrive in these harsh conditions. Here are six such animals.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Despite harsh conditions, some animals thrive in hot, dry desert climates. These animals include fennec foxes, dung beetles, Bactrian camels, Mexican coyotes, sidewinder snakes and thorny devil lizards.
Fennec foxes inhabit the Saharan desert in Africa, where temperatures average around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Their large ears dispel heat by filtering blood through small capillaries in the thin ear tissue, spreading it out and cooling it before it is circulated back into the rest of the body. Fennec foxes have thick fur on the soles of their feet, which allows them to run over hot desert sand without pain. Like many desert creatures, they have developed nocturnal habits, so they are most active after the scorching desert sun goes down. While out and about at night, fennec foxes feast on smaller desert animals, such as beetles and lizards.
There are several species of dung beetles, but most of them live in the deserts of Australia and Africa. Famously, these beetles feed exclusively on the dung of larger animals. Though it may seem gross, eating dung is a good choice for a small desert creature like a beetle. In the hot, dry desert, moisture of any kind is hard to find. Dung contains moisture from the gut of the animal that expelled it. Instead of searching for rare watering holes the way wildebeest and antelope do, dung beetles wait for these larger animals to do the work of finding water for them. By eating dung, they get all the advantages of the water found by others without needing to do any of the work.
This doesn't mean that dung beetles live a life of leisure. Many species spend long hours shaping dung into perfect orbs, which they then roll across the desert to their burrows. Depending on the size of the dung ball, it can provide enough food and moisture to keep a beetle alive for more than a week. Most dung beetles are active at dawn and dusk when desert temperatures are relatively cool. During the height of midday, they burrow into the sand to escape the heat. Their glossy exoskeletons reflect sunlight, which prevents them from becoming too hot.
Camels are some of the most famous desert animals. While some species have only one hump, Bactrian camels have two. These humps serve the same function as those of single-humped camels: They store energy-rich fat, which sustains the camels during long treks across the desert. Many people used to believe that camel humps contained water, which isn't true. It's easy to understand why someone might believe this since camels can go up to seven months without drinking water. In contrast, a human can only survive for three to five days without water in temperate conditions.
Besides their humps and drinking habits – or lack thereof – camels come equipped with even more adaptations for desert life. Their wide, tough feet can withstand the heat of desert sand, even at temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They rarely sweat, which conserves water, and their long eyelashes and bushy eyebrows keep blowing sand out of their eyes.
Mexican coyotes are one of several coyote subspecies. As their name implies, they live in the deserts of Mexico, as well as in California and Arizona, mostly in the Sonoran Desert. Although coyotes are sometimes confused with wolves, these desert canines are much smaller, usually weighing only about 30 pounds at full adulthood.
Like fennec foxes, coyotes use their large ears to cool their bodies. However, their most useful desert adaptation may well be their diet. Coyotes are opportunistic eaters, which means they will eat as much as they can whenever they can, and they can eat just about anything in their environment. Insects, small rodents, reptiles and vegetarian fare such as cactus fruit and flowers. Coyotes usually live alone, but they can form packs with other coyotes to hunt large prey if the opportunity arises. This flexibility allows coyotes to be successful desert dwellers.
Sidewinders are one of many snake species native to deserts of the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico. These legless reptiles get their name from their unique way of moving. Instead of slithering side to side in a straight line, as most snakes do, sidewinders slither diagonally, whipping their bodies back and forth in long strokes. This movement allows them to move quickly and with good traction even over loose, shifting desert sand. Like all snakes, sidewinders are predators. They prey on smaller desert creatures including rodents and small reptiles. During certain parts of the year when temperatures are particularly high, sidewinders change their sleeping habits and become nocturnal. During cooler parts of the year, they remain active during the day.
Thorny Devil Lizard
The thorny devil, also known as the thorny dragon, is a lizard specially equipped for life in the deserts of Australia. They are named for the protruding, thornlike growths that cover their skin. These sharp growths are effective at keeping predators such as birds and larger lizards away. Amazingly, their thorns also help them collect water. Like plant stalks, the thorns become covered with dew each morning. The thorny devil drinks this dew, which keeps it from having to hunt for water in the desert.
The thorny devil has a unique way of hunting, which conserves energy. Instead of going after prey to hunt, thorny devils position themselves by ant hills, bury themselves partially in the sand, and wait for prey to come to them. As ants wander by, thorny devils snatch them up one by one.
About the Author
Maria Cook is a freelance and fiction writer from Indianapolis, Indiana. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Butler University in Indianapolis. She has written about science as it relates to eco-friendly practices, conservation and the environment for Green Matters.