Desert animals have evolved to handle the desert’s heat and lack of water. They have adapted their bodies and behaviors to the desert climate. Most can survive on small amounts of water and many get all of their water from their food. Some drink maybe once a week and travel considerable distances to find isolated waterholes and springs. Large animals seek shade during the hottest part of the day. Some animals dig a hollow depression into the ground and lie in the cooler soil while others are nocturnal. Many reptiles and other animals protect themselves from the extreme temperature by spending their time in burrows. Below you will find a sampling of the animals that inhabit the desert, along with a few interesting facts about each.
Desert Bighorn Sheep (Mojave, Chihuahuan, Sonoran)
Indigenous to the hot desert habitats of the Southwest region of the United States. They are considered good indicators of land health because the species is sensitive to many human-induced environmental problems. They use their hooves and horns to remove spines from cacti, then eat the juicy insides. Desert Bighorns utilize two mechanisms for cooling — perspiring, and also panting, which is a fairly uncommon adaptation for desert animals.
Scorpion (all deserts)
It is the last five segments of the scorpions abdomen that forms what most people refer to as the “tail” at the end of which is the venomous stinger. The “long-tailed” South African Scorpion reaches a length of over 8 inches, and is probably the longest scorpion in the world. Scorpions have a complex mating ritual in which the male uses his pedipalps to grasp the female’s pedipalps in order to lead her on a “courtship dance”.
Ostrich (Sahara, Kalahari)
Skeletons and fossils of ostriches have been found which date back over 120 million years! Ostriches are the second fastest animal in the world and can run at 40 miles per hour. They can maintain this speed for at least 30 minutes. Ostriches do not bury their head in the sand. Ostriches stretch out their neck and lay their head on the ground to keep from being seen, hence the myth that ostriches hide in the sand. The ostrich is the world’s largest bird. An ostrich lives for about 40 years.
Collared Lizard (Mojave, Sonoran)
Very predatory and when frightened and running fast, will rearup and run on its hind legs (bipedal), a rarity in lizards. If a predator grabs the Baja Black Collared lizard by the tail, the skin comes off! This lizard gets its name from the two dark bands or collars encircling the throat area Notice the pronounced jaw muscles. This lizard is carnivorous, eating – insects, small rodents, and other lizards.
Kangaroo Rat (Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan, Great Basin)
Have the ability to convert the dry seeds they eat into water, and they neither sweat nor pant like other animals to keep cool.They spend their days in their burrows where the air is moist and humid. Kangaroo rats seem to have two major periods of activity: one around 9 pm and the other about 3 am when there is the most moisture in the air!
Camels (Gobi, Sahara)
The Bactrian camel has two humps and lives in the Gobi desert; the Dromedary camel has one hump and lives in the Sahara desert. Camels have the ability to close their eyes and nostrils to keep out blowing sand and dust. The Dromedary camel is capable of drinking 30 gallons (100 leters) of water in just 10 minutes! Camels store fat in their hump, not water! In fact baby camels are born without humps because the layer of fat does not develop until they eat solid food.
Elf Owl (Chihuahuan)
One of the smallest owls in the world, the Elf owl is only 5 1/2 inches tall!. It lives in hollowed out cactus trunks, where it is protected from most predators. When captured, this tiny owl likes to play opossum and feigns death until it is sure that all danger has passed!
Side Winder (Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan, Namib)
Use a sidewinding motion to move across the hot surface sand and have only a small part of the body on the hot sand at one time. Sidewinders use quick motions to wiggle into the sand to bury the greater part of their body. The head of the Sidewinder is triangular in shape. The Sidewinder will usually only have the eyes and nostrils visible once buried in the sand!
Pupfish (Sonoran, Chihuahuan)
A full grown adult will only get about as big as your thumb! The Comanche pupfish (pictured) possesses a peculiar speckled color pattern in males not found in any other member of its genus. Desert pupfish inhabit waters at high temperatures – 100 degrees F. They also toloerate high levels of salt in the waters where they live.
Echidna (Spiny Anteater, Australian)
Lays eggs and produces milk for its young. The Echidna has a pointy snout and an extremely long sticky tongue used to catch ants and termites. They make a sniffing noise as they search for food! Because they have no teeth the Echidna crushes the insects between thorny pads in its mouth.
Addax Antelope (Sahara)
Currently, no more than several dozen in Algeria, Niger, and the Sudan remain in the wild. These beautiful antelope have been hunted to near extinction for their horns. Addax possess broad, flat hooves with flat soles that help prevent them from sinking into the desert sand! Addax will dig depressions in the sand in which to rest. These are often located partly underneath boulders that give shade and protection from the wind and sun.
Greater Roadrunner (Sonoran, Mojave, Chihuahuan)
Has the ability to lower its body temperature in response to lower night temperatures in the desert habitat. They raise the body temperature with the help of a black patch on their back which they expose to absorb the rays of the sun. Roadrunners run very fast (up to 15 miles per hour!), and can chase down swift prey, such as lizards, with ease. They prefer to walk or run, and, when they fly, it is usually close to the ground for short distances.
Sand Cat (Sahara, Gobi, Arabian, Turkestan)
Well adapted to cope with the extremes of its environment – its thick fur is of medium length and acts as insulation against the extreme cold of the desert nights and its feet and pads are covered with long hair which protect them from the heat of the desert surface and give it extra support needed in moving across the soft, shifting sands.
Dung Beetles (Kalahari, Saharan)
Researchers have counted as many as 16,000 dung beetles arriving at a 3.3 lb. heap of dung in Africa. These beetles ate, buried, and rolled this “minor habitat” away in two hours! There are three basic types of dung beetles: the rollers, the tunnelers, and the dwellers.