Despite the chronic lack of water, a desert is still a very lively biome with thousands of species adapting to it.
An animal adapted to desert life is called a xerocole, and in today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at the most interesting animals that live in the desert.
- Fennec Foxes
- Kangaroo Rats
- Big Cats
- Arabian Wolves
- Bearded Dragons
- Desert Box Turtles
- Desert Elephants
- Desert Horned Lizards
- Desert Kingsnakes
- Desert Monitors
- Gila Monsters
- Golden Jackals
- Lappet-faced Vultures
- Mojave Rattlesnakes
- Red Kangaroos
- Saharan Horned Vipers
- Sand Cats
- Water-holding Frogs
- Zebra-tailed Lizards
1. Fennec Foxes
Scientific name: Vulpes zerda
Even though it’s the smallest species of fox, the fennec fox is one of the most well-adapted animals to desert territories. They’re characterized by their incredibly large ears – they actually have the largest ear-to-body ratio in the entire canine family.
The purpose of their ears is to dissipate heat. Since they only occupy the Saharan desert, they spend their entire lives in unbearable heat. To keep cool, the blood vessels of their ears dilate and the blood moves into the expanded area, keeping them cool.
Another smart way they stay cool (and stay safe from larger predators) is by digging complex systems underground.
Scientific name (genus): Camelus
These tall animals can withstand incredibly high and incredibly low body temperatures. They can survive 93°F and 104°F – to put it into perspective, both ends of this spectrum are painful and dangerous for humans and most other mammals.
They can also survive extreme dehydration – they’re capable of losing 25% of their weight in water, while most mammals die after losing over 10%. The coat of the camel also changes color with time to reflect light.
With time, they’ve developed very long legs to keep them high above the ground, which can radiate extreme heat during the summer. All in all, these animals that live in the Sahara (among other places) are the ultimate desert animal.
3. Kangaroo Rats
Scientific name (genus): Dipodomys
These animals are known for hopping around like kangaroos, hence the name, and they usually hop around completely arid areas with soil suitable for burrowing. Even though they’re not as adapted to extreme temperatures as camels and fennec foxes, they’re still impressive survivors.
They’re used to burrowing under the ground to avoid the highest of temperatures, and they can build insanely complex burrows with hundreds of chambers. Kangaroo rats will plug those chambers during the day to keep them from heating up.
Because of the extreme temperatures in the deserts of North America, which is where they live, they’re mostly nocturnal animals.
4. Big Cats
Scientific name (genus): Panthera
This mostly refers to lions, leopards, and cheetahs, as tigers and jaguars don’t live in desert areas (but they could probably adapt if needed).
Their most noticeable adaptations lie in the color of their fur. All of these cats have distinctly sand-colored fur, keeping them hidden from their prey.
In addition to that, cheetahs have developed unbelievable running capabilities, as they’re the quickest terrestrial animal that has ever existed.
5. Arabian Wolves
Scientific name: Canis lupus arabs
This species is often found in the Negev Desert and some adjacent arid areas. It’s a subspecies of the gray wolf, and it’s essentially a desert-adapted gray wolf.
To minimize calorie consumption in the heat, these wolves reduced their size and weight greatly in comparison to other wolves.
This makes them living proof of Allen’s Rule, saying that animals in hotter climates have to adapt their size to avoid starving to death because of a high temperature and a lack of food.
6. Bearded Dragons
Scientific name (genus): Pogona
Bearded dragons are animals that live in Australian deserts, where they’ve developed two strategies to survive the extreme heat.
Firstly, they’re known to burrow for weeks on end in order to stay cool during the hottest months of the year.
Secondly, they’ll also go dormant during the hottest and the coldest periods. During this period of dormancy, which is called brumation, bearded lizards won’t eat and they’ll drink only small amounts of water.
Scientific name: Canis latrans
Similar to Arabian wolves, coyotes have made certain adaptations to help them survive extreme temperatures. Coyotes are animals that live in North American deserts, among other places.
To survive such high temperatures, they remain short and thin, which minimizes their caloric consumption. On top of their small build, they’ve developed a gut that can process any type of meat. They don’t shy away from animal carcasses and roadkill.
8. Desert Box Turtles
Scientific name: Terrapene ornata luteola
This type of turtle is only found in the southwestern United States and parts of northern Mexico. There, they have to withstand extremely high temperatures. Since deserts get very cold at night (to the surprise of many people), these turtles have to hibernate during the winter to survive life in the desert.
They’ll start their hibernation in November and it will last until May. To hibernate, the turtle will burrow into the ground and stay burrowed until temperatures rise.
Despite the desert being their natural environment, desert box turtles are naturally tolerant to subzero temperatures!
9. Desert Elephants
Scientific name: Loxodonta africana
Desert elephants are not a species of their own, but tribes of African bush elephants that occur in the Sahara and the Namib Desert. These elephants are different from other elephant species because of their desert adaptations.
This includes longer legs, which keep their bodies farther away from the hot ground, broader feet, and smaller bodies. Because they need to march from one water hole to another, and those distances can range up to 70 kilometers, they developed broad feet.
Desert elephants are also more resistant than other elephants, as they can last without water for three days.
10. Desert Horned Lizards
Scientific name: Phrynosoma platyrhinos
Indigenous to the North American continent, these lizards are only found in desert climates. Just like other desert lizards, they like to burrow themselves in the ground. If possible, they’ll find the burrow of another animal and adopt it as their own.
They can easily camouflage into the background because of their color and the spikes on their backs. Their bodies are very flat, which makes it easy for them to stay close to the ground and crawl beneath shrubs for protection.
11. Desert Kingsnakes
Scientific name: Lampropeltis splendida
This species of kingsnake is found in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, where they usually inhabit desert areas, but they can be found in well-watered areas as well. In the wild, they mostly feed on rodents and other snakes (they’re immune to the venom of the pit viper).
These animals that live in Arizona deserts cope with the heat by crawling under rocks and shrubs, but they’ll often approach human habitat.
They’re completely harmless, as they’re not venomous and they’re docile when approached. Kingsnakes will often play dead when approached by a person.
12. Desert Monitors
Scientific name: Varanus griseus
Desert monitors are very well adapted to the desert environment, especially their skin. However, despite their tolerance to heat, desert monitors can tolerate colder temperatures too. They hibernate from the fall until mid-spring.
Their behavior depends massively on the temperature around them. They’re usually slower during colder periods and they move more quickly during warmer periods.
During colder periods, desert monitors become aggressive, as they can’t run away from would-be predators.
13. Gila Monsters
Scientific name: Heloderma suspectum
The only venomous species of lizard in the USA is usually found in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. They’ve completely adapted to deserts and scrubs, where they hide under rocks and in burrows to survive the high temperatures.
In fact, a Gila monster will spend 90% of its life in a burrow or under a rock. Otherwise, they would overheat and die. They’re mostly active at night, and the only two things that can bring them out of their shelter during the day are mating and feeding.
14. Golden Jackals
Scientific name: Canis aureus
This jackal is one of the most widespread animals on this list, with its natural habitat ranging from Europe to South Asia. A great part of that habitat is actually desert habitat. Even when they live in deserts, they still try to stay close to water sources.
They’re a very small species in comparison to other canids – they’re even smaller than the Arabian wolf (which is the smallest of all wolves).
Their fur is usually golden brown, and its lightness helps them cope with the weather and also allows them to blend in with the environment.
15. Lappet-faced Vulture
Scientific name: Torgos tracheliotos
The lappet-faced vulture is only found in Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula, making them an animal that only lives in the desert. They’re the largest vulture in the territory, reaching a wingspan of almost ten feet!
Because food isn’t easy to come by in the desert, these vultures are scavengers (just like most vultures), and they find their food by sight.
They’re the most powerful vulture in Africa, capable of gnawing through meat and skin of freshly-killed, large animals, making a path for smaller scavengers.
Scientific name: Suricata suricatta
These social animals are only found in southern Africa, where they’re known for their burrowing. They’re a highly-cooperating species, building burrows, guarding them, and looking after the offspring together.
The two primary purposes of the burrows are protecting the animals from predators and from the temperatures. There is an eight-hour interval between the outside temperature and the temperature within the burrows.
This means that the burrow is very cold during the day (keeping the temperature from the night) and warm during the night (keeping the temperature from the day). This advanced way of thermoregulation is very effective.
17. Mojave Rattlesnake
Scientific name: Crotalus scutulatus
Also known as the Mojave rattle, this snake is mostly found in the Mojave Desert, but they’re not uncommon in other areas of southwestern US, northern and central Mexico.
Aside from sunbathing, they don’t do much throughout the day because of the high temperatures. They mostly hunt at night, while they’re completely dormant during the winter – burrowing into the ground.
18. Red Kangaroos
Scientific name: Osphranter rufus
Kangaroos are, impressively, capable of surviving in arid environments by conserving plenty of water. Their kidneys are specially adapted to concentrate urine, and they usually eat green vegetation, which they’re capable of finding even in deserts.
They seem to copy the behavior of many reptiles – hiding during the day and moving only at night. Aside from grazing on shrubs and grasses, they avoid moving during the day.
Because of their great swimming abilities, kangaroos will often jump into the water to cool down during the hottest days of the year.
19. Saharan Horned Vipers
Scientific name: Cerastes cerastes
This species of snake is native to North Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. They’re easily recognized by the horns above their eyes, while their color pattern usually blends them in with their dusty surroundings.
These vipers prefer sandy areas and they’re found near oases on rare occasions. To prey, they hide under the sand with only a part of their head protruding out. Because of their color, they’re almost invisible.
The adaptations made to their color and their strategy of burrowing into the sand when predating have proven to be one of the most effective predation strategies in the desert.
20. Sand Cats
Scientific name: Felis margarita
Sand cats are usually found in the deserts of North Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula. There, they live a solitary life, and they’re mostly active during the night, as the daily temperatures are far too high for them to move.
They can travel more than 3 miles per night, and they’ll find a burrow just before dawn and spend the rest of the day in it. Sand cats usually invade burrows made by other animals, which often means they get both the burrow and prey.
21. Water-holding Frogs
Scientific name: Ranoidea platycephala
Here’s a fascinating concept – to survive the extreme heat, water-holding frogs can survive for five years without drinking water because of their water-holding abilities. They keep urine in the bladder and use it as a water reserve during times of drought.
Because of their blown-up bladder, this species of frog can seem swollen. Another way to prevent water loss is by burrowing itself into the ground. They also eat their own skin to prevent caloric loss.
22. Zebra-tailed Lizards
Scientific name: Callisaurus draconoides
The final animal on this list is found in the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico. There, they usually inhabit deserts with hard soil, where they’re one of the few active animals throughout the day.
They do their hunting, drinking, and other activities during the day, not only during the night. To keep their toepads from burning, these lizards will switch their weight from one leg to the other, so it might seem like it’s dancing.
In order to survive life in the desert, animals have to make serious adaptations in terms of temperature regulation, retaining water, size, weight, and hunting capabilities. Arabian wolves, camels, and desert elephants are great examples of changes made to size, weight, and body shape to minimize caloric loss due to heat.
Desert snakes and lizards show great ways to regulate temperature by burrowing, as well as well-developed hunting methods, while meerkats are a great example of how advanced burrows delay temperature rises and drops to benefit the animals.