Animals of the Desert

January 5, 2024

As deserts grow more common worldwide, so does the variety of animals that call them home. The desert environment poses many challenges for animals, including the scarcity of life-sustaining water and extremes of temperature. The biological processes of an animal's tissues can operate within a narrow range of temperatures; outside that range, the organism dies. Desert animals must learn to conserve energy and keep their body temperatures in the safe zone.

Some desert animals are nocturnal, active at night when the temperature cools. Others sleep during the day to avoid the sun's brutal heat, while some, like the fennec fox, use their big ears as a way to regulate their body temperature and to shade themselves from the sun. Many nocturnal and diurnal desert animals live in burrows, which provide insulation from scorching hot days and cold nights. The tunnels also offer protection from predators and a place to store food and water.

The desert tortoise is a master of avoiding the heat. Unable to regulate its own body temperature, the tortoise goes underground during the hottest time of year to estivate—enter a state of dormancy that allows it to save water and energy. During this time, it may remain above ground for only three months of the year.

Other desert species conserve energy by breeding only when it is cooler, such as in the spring, then leaving the area until summer rains fill ponds and playas with fresh water. Some desert plants, such as cactuses and saguaro ribbed leaves, have evolved to store water in their spines or juicy pads. And, some desert mammals, such as kangaroo rats and meerkats, hibernate during the frigid winter temperatures to protect themselves from predators and harsh conditions.

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