Animal Adaptations to Life in the Desert

Living in the desert, especially in the summer, it may seem almost impossible how any animals could have naturally come to live there. Little, or more often no, rain, sparse plants for shade, the heat. Yet many animals do live, and even thrive, in the desert. Here are some of the ways that they have evolved to be able to handle the desert life no sweat.

Nocturnal Desert FoxOne major component of knowing how to live in the desert is knowing how to get out of the sun. The sun may over heat the animal or dry them out, so many dig burrows to hide away in, use other animals’ abandoned burrows, or find shade under rocks or under plants. Many animals in the desert are nocturnal and only move around during the cooler night temperatures. Others are crepuscular, only active during the dawn and dusk when there is still light but it isn’t so hot.

The Cape ground squirrel in South Africa has a big bushy tail, which you might think would be too furry to keep them cool. But these resourceful squirrels hold their tails over their heads as a sort of umbrella to keep the harsh sun rays off of them.


Large Desert Gila MonsterAnother big problem is that of water. There isn’t much of it around in the desert. And all animals need to stay hydrated to live. Some animals hibernate each year until rain does fall, and some are able to stay hydrated solely from the plants their eat alone. But lack of water also means lack of plants. Some animals keep a store of fat to live off of when the going gets tough and there isn’t enough water or plants around to eat. One such animal is the Gila monster.


One lizard, the thorny devil in Australia, is capable of drinking water through its skin. The scales on this lizard are structured to collect dew or even water from mud, and channel only the clean water up to the mouth, where they can drink.


Desert RattlesnakeThe heat can be painful to move around in, both from an overheating perspective and from the perspective of the sand being so hot it can burn. Some animals keep themselves cool by having large ears, such as the jackrabbit or the kit fox. Their large ears release large amounts of heat through veins, keeping the rest of their body cooler. Some animals move around so that they have the least contact with the burning sand as possible, such as the sidewinder. These snakes’ signature S movement is perfect for keeping them cool, as there are only two points of contact with the ground when they’re slithering.


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