Interesting Facts about the Desert and its Animals

When we think of dirt, we probably think of soil for growing crops, dusty fields, or hiking along trails through the forest or in the mountains. But the sand of the world’s deserts falls into our general idea of “dirt” as well. Animals interact with this form of dirt very differently than their counterparts living in other, more lush ecosystems. In order to better understand how animals interact with deserts it’s helpful to understand the four main types of deserts.

Deserts cover more than 20% of the world’s land area and receive less than 10 inches of rain per year. There are four different types of desert found throughout the world:

  1. Hot and dry: very hot during the day but can get cold during the night, occasional rain in short bursts followed by long dry periods, cactus, shrubs, yucca, agave, and short woody trees provide vegetation, animals are mostly nocturnal.  Ex. Mojave Desert in United States
  2.   Semiarid: temperatures are more moderate than hot and dry deserts, rarely rising above 100F or 38C, cooler temperatures lead to more vegetation which allows dew to accumulate at night, adding moisture to the environment, sagebrush type vegetation common, most animals are burrowers or nocturnal, but more active in the day than animals in hot and dry deserts. Ex. Sagebrush of Nevada and Utah in United States
  3.  Coastal: cooler than the above deserts as temperatures reach 75F (24C) in summer and 23F (-5C) in winter, less harsh than above deserts, more plants and animals can survive here and are not nearly as nocturnal, mammals can live here.  Ex: Atacama Desert in Chile
  4. Cold: “arctic” deserts with long, cold winters (-2C to 4C) and moderate, somewhat moist summers (21C-26C), lots of snow in winter, scattered, short plants with spiny leaves, jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, squirrels, and other burrowers are hunted by badgers, foxes, and coyotes.  Ex: Antarctica, Greenland

Let’s take a closer look at some of the animals that inhabit deserts:

Gila Monster. Native to the semiarid deserts of Mexico and the Southwestern United States, the Gila Monster is one of only two venomous lizards in the world. They can grow up to 2 feet (60cm) in length and feed on small mammals, lizards, birds, eggs, worms, and carrion. Gila Monsters store fat in their tails to burn when food is scarce, so if you see one with a skinny tail, he or she is probably pretty hungry!

Roadrunner. Also native to the American Southwest, the roadrunner rarely flies but it can run up to 18mph (30km/h)! The species can go long periods without drinking water if its prey has high water content. Roadrunners eat insects, other smaller birds, lizards, snakes, rodents, and fruit.

Kangaroo Rat. More rat than kangaroo, this rodent gets its name from the ability to jump 2 feet high and 6 feet in length. Also native to Mexico and the American Southwest, kangaroo rats are completely nocturnal, spending their days hiding in burrows. Their diet consists mostly of seeds, through which the kangaroo rat gets most of its water consumption as well.

Jack Rabbit. Actually part of the hare family, the jack rabbit is larger and furrier than most rabbits. They are found in semi-arid deserts, prairies, and grasslands around the world and grow up to 2 feet tall (including the ears!). They are herbivores and eat grasses, bark, leaves, desert shrubs, and even cacti.

Scorpions. One of the desert’s most feared predators scorpions can be found in all deserts except cold deserts. Origins of the species go back at least 430 million years and this long evolutionary history has allowed over 1,750 unique variations to develop. Scorpions actually belong to the arachnid family as they have eight legs, and use pincers to grab prey while stinging with their tails to deliver the knockout blow. Scorpions are often nocturnal and will burrow under the sand during the day.

Addax. The Addax is an antelope that lives in the Sahara Desert. The Addax has long, twisted horns and stands from 105cm to 115cm tall (about 4 feet). The animal is extremely endangered and is hunted by lions, wild dogs, cats, and humans. Its relatively slow speed makes it vulnerable. Mostly nocturnal, the addax digs into the sand in shady spots which also offers protection from sand storms. The addax get most of their water through the consumption of seeds and occasional dew, but also eat desert grasses.

Culpeo Fox. Chile’s largest predator, also known as the Andean Fox, can be found in the Atacama Desert. The fox eats lizards, birds, small rodents, and can survive on plants in lean times, which come often in the world’s driest desert. The Culpeo Fox prefers to hunt and roam alone and will only meet up with others during the mating process. This adaptive species can be found from northern Chile all the way south to the mountains of Patagonia.

Giant Hummingbird. The world’s largest hummingbird can reach a length of 8 inches (20cm) but still weighs less than an ounce! This “giant” bird can be found in and around the Atacama Desert of South America and is quite common.

Bactrian Camel. The two-humped camel resides in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and China. They live together in groups of up to 15 individuals and are critically endangered, with about 1,400 left currently left in the wild although up to 2 million live in captivity. However, the captive species and the wild species are considered separate. The wild Bactrian Camel is an extremely hearty animal, able to survive in conditions ranging from -40C to 40C throughout different times of the year.

Walking Stick. Perhaps one the world’s most interesting insects, the walking stick is a triumph of adaptation. The animal naturally disguises itself as, you guessed it, a twig or stick and can be incredibly difficult to spot, especially for predators. There are many variations found throughout the world’s deserts with the largest reaching 30cm (1ft) in length. Only 1 of every 1,000 walking sticks is male!


Other interesting facts:

  • The Sahara is the world’s hottest desert, reaching temperatures of 122 degrees F (50 degrees C).
  • Some toads can burrow and seal themselves in with mucus, becoming inactive and waiting on rain for up to 9 months!
  • Jack Rabbits can eat up to 1lb of food in a day!
  • Some scorpions can slow their metabolism enough to survive off of 1 insect per year!
  • Did you know the scientific name for a desert animal is Xerocole?
  • There are roughly 600 Addax in breeding programs worldwide to aid conservation efforts.
  • The eggs of a walking stick often resemble seeds from nearby plants.

The desert is one of earth’s most enchanting, mysterious, beautiful, and harsh environments simultaneously. The “dirt” of the desert has played a vital role in how these animals have adapted to the environment and each other and will continue to do so.

Sources: The University of California Museum of Paleontology, National Geographic, and the Nature Conservancy