17 Desert Animals and Their Amazing Adaptations
The animals that make the desert their home must adapt not only to the lack of water but to the temperature fluctuations that swing from very hot to very cold. Animals that survive these conditions do so in a variety of ways — whether it is large ears to radiate heat or thick coats to prevent sunburn and withstand freezing temperatures, they all are far from typical. Some are nocturnal to miss the heat of the day, and all of them make the most of very little water. Here’s a look at some of the incredible animals that live in the desert.
It’s not often you can find a frog that can thrive in deserts and even mountains with elevations of 4,000 feet. The second-largest frog on the African continent, the African bullfrog, knows ways to beat the heat. It merely buries itself until the weather improves. During hot, dry weather, the bullfrog can burrow into the ground and lie dormant in estivation, a hibernation-like state. They slough off the skin to form a cocoon to hold in the body’s moisture and absorb the water stored in the bladder. It can lie in estivation for long periods — even longer than a year — and can survive to lose as much as 38 percent of its body weight. When the rains arrive, the African bullfrog makes the most of it, returning to the surface to feed and breed. It can eat anything small enough to fit in its mouth, from birds to rodents to other frogs.
Find tiny jewels in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, in the form of the Costa’s hummingbird, a species that thrives in a desert habitat. The little bird can escape the heat of the hottest summer days by migrating to the chaparral or scrub habitats. Meanwhile, when the temperatures at night plummet, the hummingbird enters a state of torpor, slowing its heart rate from its usual 500-900 beats per minute to 50 beats per minute, conserving energy. It gets all the water it needs from the nectar and insects it feeds on, though it doesn’t mind taking a sip when a water source is available.
This adorable sand cat is practically a cartoon character — small, cute, and equipped with superpowers for living in the desert. Found in northern Africa and central and southwest Asia, this is the only felid that lives in a sandy desert habitat. Its ears are big and set low, which helps protect it from wind-blown sand and improves its ability to locate prey hiding underground. Its thickly furred paws help it cope with the extremes of hot and cold sand. Indeed, the sand cat can tolerate temperatures from 23 degrees to 126 degrees Fahrenheit. To escape the extreme temperatures, sand cats inhabit burrows, taking up residence in those abandoned by foxes or rodents and enlargening them as needed with their powerful but blunt claws. They are active during the day in winter and are nocturnal during the summer.
It is strange to think of a large mammal capable of living in intensely hot desert conditions, but the Arabian oryx shows us how successful they can be. This herbivore has a white coat to reflect the sunlight of the day, while its dark legs help absorb heat during cold desert mornings. It can sense rain over long distances and can find fresh grasses and plants, and will even eat roots when no other forage is available. It feeds during dawn and late afternoon, resting in shaded areas during the midday heat. As for water, the Arabian oryx can go for days, and sometimes even weeks, without a significant drink. It gets its water from dew on the plants it eats and from the actual water content of the plants.
The Arabian wolf is a subspecies of gray wolf that has adapted to live in impressively harsh desert conditions. This 40-pound wolf has a long coat in winter to insulate it against freezing temperatures, and while in summer it has a shorter coat, the longer fur remains along its back to help protect against the heat of the sun. It also has extra-large ears to help disperse body heat. To escape the most miserable heat, it will dig deep dens and rest in the shade. The Arabian wolf usually lives a solitary life except during breeding season or when plentiful food is available. Even then, they live only in pairs or groups of 3-4 wolves. Its prey is anything from small birds, reptiles, and hares to larger animals like gazelles and ibexes. It cannot go entirely without water, so it sticks to gravel plains and the fringes of the desert.
One of the cutest residents of any desert is the desert hedgehog, found in Africa and the Middle East. Adapted to live in desert and arid scrub habitats, this species of the hedgehog is one of the smallest, only reaching between 6-11 inches long. It survives by escaping the heat in its burrow during day and hunting at night. It eats everything from insects and invertebrates to bird eggs to snakes and scorpions. By getting fluids from its prey, it can go for long periods without water.
Perhaps one of the most celebrated inhabitants of the Gobi desert, among other areas of inner Asia, is the snow leopard. Its high-altitude home is one of the toughest places to survive, but the snow leopard does so with grace. Its large chest allows it to get enough oxygen from thin mountain air, while its large nasal cavities help warm the air before it hits the lungs. Its massive paws and extra long tail help it navigate the rocky terrain with excellent balance, and its long, thick coat keeps it warm in freezing temperatures.
This tiny kangaroo-like creature is the jerboa, a rodent native to desert climes across North Africa, China, and Mongolia. Jerboas inhabit deserts across the world, from the Sahara, the hottest desert in the world, to the Gobi, one of the coldest in the world. At either extreme, you can find a member of the jerboa family happily burrowing beneath the ground. By using burrowing systems, the jerboa can escape the extreme heat or cold. It has short forearms and well-built hind legs made for digging, and it has folds of skin that can close off its nostrils to sand. This little creature also has specialized hairs to keep sand from getting in its ears. Its long back legs allow it to travel rapidly using minimal energy. Jerboas can get all the water they need from the vegetation and insects they eat. In fact, in laboratory studies, jerboas have lived off of only dry seeds for up to three years.
Pronghorn, the fastest land animal in North America, can be found across the continent. However, Sonoran pronghorns have adapted to live in a particularly challenging environment. They can eat and digest plants that other herbivores won’t touch, including dry grasses and even cactuses. They have teeth with particularly high crowns to handle abrasive foods and have a four-part stomach to extract as many nutrients as possible. Their hollow hairs trap heat to insulate them against freezing night temperatures, but they can also raise patches of hair to release trapped heat and cool off on hot days. Though amazingly adapted for desert environments, more frequent and prolonged droughts due to climate change may be more than the species can handle. Only around 160 Sonoran pronghorn remain in the wild in the United States.
Meerkats have become an iconic figure of the Kalahari desert. But not only is this species full of personality, but it is also well adapted for its demanding habitat. Meerkats have several physical features that make them well-suited for desert life. They get a good deal of water from their diet and dine on insects, snakes, and scorpions. They may eat roots and tubers for additional water. Meerkats make use of burrow systems for escaping predators and harsh weather. They can close their ears to keep sand out and have a third eyelid to protect their eyes. The dark coloration around their eyes further protects them by reducing the glare of the sun, so they have a better chance of spotting danger.
The Kalahari lion is a subspecies of African lion specially adapted to its desert environment. Physically, they have longer legs and leaner bodies, and males have much darker manes. Kalahari lions have more endurance, and they need it. Living in smaller groups, these lions lay claim to larger territories and dine on smaller prey, from antelope to porcupines to birds. The Kalahari lions have a stronger resistance to thirst — they can go for two weeks without drinking water, relying on their prey for their moisture needs. They cool down their blood by panting and sweating through the pads of their paws.
Couch’s Spadefoot Toad
This little toad has adapted better to desert conditions than any other amphibian in North America. Couch’s spadefoot toad survives by doing, well, mostly nothing. It mostly stays in a burrow waiting for the rainy season. This state of dormancy is called estivation. The Couch’s spadefoot toad typically estivates for eight to 10 months out of the year, but it can stay in its burrow for twice that long if conditions are dry. When rain does appear, the toads head straight for newly formed ponds. It can lay eggs within the first two days of reappearing, and tadpoles can hatch within 15-36 hours. It can take as little as 7.5 days for the tadpoles to transform. The rush is vital because, in the desert, ponds dry up fast. Adults have to eat as many insects as they can before digging a burrow to nap for the next eight to 10 months.
Desert Bighorn Sheep
An icon of the rugged landscape of the western United States, the bighorn sheep is one of the most majestic members of the desert ecosystem. It is also one that has adapted in remarkable ways. Bighorn sheep can go for weeks without visiting a permanent water source, getting the water they need from food and rainwater found in small rock puddles. They also use their horns to split open barrel cacti and eat the watery flesh. When green grasses are available, bighorn sheep don’t need to drink at all. However, during summer, they need to drink water every few days. They can tolerate losing up to 20 percent of their body weight in water and bounce back quickly from dehydration. By being able to survive for long periods away from a steady source of water, they can better avoid predators. They can also survive slight body temperature fluctuations, unlike many other mammals, which need to maintain a steady temperature.
An owl is a creature you might not expect to see in a desert, but the elf owl is quite at home in hot, sandy environments. These tiny owls are minuscule — standing only about 5 inches tall — and yet are tough enough to capture and dine on scorpions, among other prey. Found in riparian areas of the Sonoran desert in the western U.S., they escape the heat of the day by resting in tree cavities or holes in saguaro cacti left abandoned by woodpeckers. They hunt at night, using their exceptional low-light vision. By getting enough water from the food they consume, they can survive in areas that entirely lack surface water sources.
Bats are an important part of any ecosystem, but not just any bat can handle the tough environment of a desert. Found in western North America as well as in Cuba, the pallid bat prefers dry habitats of grassland, scrub desert. It has even been spotted in Death Valley. The pallid bat is unique among bat species because it has the ability to control its body temperature, matching its internal temperature with its environment during winter hibernation and during rest to conserve energy. Also unique among bats is this species’ preference for catching prey on the ground; it almost never catches prey in midair, as other insectivorous bats do. Instead, it will swoop down on prey, capture it, and carry it to a more convenient location to eat. Though some desert dwellers get all the water they need from their prey, the pallid bat does need a water source nearby.
The ring-tailed cat, or ringtail, is a fox-like nocturnal animal about the size of a cat with a tail similar to raccoons. This animal is most closely related to raccoons. Also known by the moniker “miner’s cat,” this fantastic climber is found in rocky outcroppings and, as the name suggests, mine shafts. It can scale anything from cliffs to cacti, rotating its hind feet 180 degrees for excellent grip with their semi-retractable claws. Their climbing repertoire also includes parkour type ricocheting between distant objects and putting their back against one wall and legs against another to climb a tight space. The species makes its home in the western United States, including in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. As is wise when living in harsh conditions, the ringtail will eat just about anything — from fruit to insects to reptiles to small mammals — and it is active at night to escape the worst of the desert’s heat. It can survive without water if its diet provides enough moisture, but it prefers living near a water source.
The fennec fox lives in the deserts of North Africa. This nocturnal omnivore has enormous ears, which can be as large as one-quarter of its entire body length. These help the animal cool down by releasing heat from the blood that circulates through them. It also has a thick fur coat that keeps it warm on frigid nights, and the fur covering its paws protects it from the hot sand while also helping it to keep from sinking into the soft sand. The fennec fox eats plants as well as eggs, insects, and pretty much anything else it finds. It can survive without access to free-standing water, thanks in part to kidneys adapted to minimize water loss.