How Desert Plants and Animals Survive

Desert plants and animals have developed special ways to survive. The methods that plants have developed in order to survive on the desert are known as adaptations. One common adaptation is the method of storing water in the roots, leaves and stems. Animals have developed both behavioral and physiological mechanisms to help them cope with the extreme heat and lack of water of the desert environment. Both plants and animals have developed methods of adaptations that allow them to survive in the harsh environment conditions of the desert.

How desert plants and animals survive

The desert climate may be thought of as extreme to support life, but in reality, deserts host abundant biodiversity. Low rainfall may create a survival problem for both plants and animals; however, animals experience additional struggles to survive, as they’re most vulnerable to the high temperatures of the deserts. Many animals and plants have evolved behavioral and physiological mechanisms to cope with heat and water difficulties. The diverse mechanisms of adaptation allow them to acquire, store, recycle, and even manufacture their own water to survive.

Avoiding heat

Certain species of birds avoid heat by migrating to cooler areas at higher altitudes or along the Pacific coast. Animals, including the kangaroo rat, jack rabbit, coyote, and numerous lizards remain hidden during the day to avoid sunlight and to retain moisture. Many animals, including mammals and reptiles, are active only at dusk and dawn. Other mammals are totally nocturnal, restricting their activities only during the cool temperatures of the night. Many snakes, bats, most rodents and larger animals, such as skunks and the fox prefer to sleep in cool places such as caves or burrows during the day. Certain lizards move extremely rapid, stopping in areas of shade, and their long legs prevent heat absorption while running.

Dissipating heat

Some animals have developed extreme body parts that permit the dissipation of heat. Jackrabbits have enormous ears provided with many blood vessels which are used to release excess heat. Pale color of most animals prevent heat absorption; however other animals with obscure bodies, such as vultures and turkeys, urinate (urohydrosis) on their legs, which have many blood vessels. The evaporation of urine absorbs excess heat from the legs. Animals, such as nighthawks, owls and poorwills evaporate water from their mouth cavities by fluttering the region of their throat while maintain their mouth open. Meerkats have dark rings around their eyes which allow them to reduce glare from the sun.

Retaining water

To minimize loss of water, birds and reptiles excrete their metabolic wastes in the form of uric acid, an insoluble white compound. Other mammals excrete their wastes as urea, which is a soluble compound that causes considerable water loss; therefore, most mammals require an adequate supply of water. Desert toads retain water by burrowing into moist soil during the daylight hours. Many desert animals obtain their supply of water directly from plants, especially succulent ones, such as the cactus. Insects survive in the deserts by sucking nectar from stems while others obtain water from plants they eat, including leaves, stems and fruits.

Storing water

Some species of rodents have specialized kidneys equipped with microscopic tubules used to extract water contained in urine which can be reused in the bloodstream. Most of the moisture, that otherwise, would be exhaled out of the body through breathing is recaptured in the nasal cavities by specialized organs and stored for dissipation of heat. Kangaroo rats seal off their underground dens to block out heat and to recycle their own moisture stemming from breathing. Kangaroo rats and other rodents produce their own water from the ingestion of dry seeds. Gila monsters store fat in their tails, which can be metabolized to provide water when needed.

 Plants known as succulents have adapted to the desert environment by storing water in their thick stems and leaves and roots. Other desert plants develop long roots systems that penetrate deep into the ground to absorb underground water. Another form of adaptation is the growth of minuscule spiny leaves which help them shed less moisture than other leaves with larger surface areas. Most desert plants possess a shiny surface that reflects sunlight, thus avoiding heat. Other plants have managed to stay out from the direct contact with the sun by changing their posture and orientation of their leaves in a vertical position.

Plants and animals can endure temperatures that are considered dangerous for humans. One of these animals is the antelope squirrel which can tolerate body temperatures of more than 104 °F. Deserts are areas that receive little precipitation. This along with very hot and dry climate makes them one of the harshest biomes in the world. The Desert Studies Center of California State University (CSU) offers the opportunity to both individuals and groups to conduct research and experience the desert environment to learn more about animal life and their methods of adaptation.