A desert is one of the harshest environments on the planet. The temperatures in a desert can vary wildly between the day and night, swinging over 40 degrees Fahrenheit in some cases. As bad as that is, it is the scarcity of water that presents the biggest threat to a desert’s inhabitants. Amazingly enough, many creatures have adapted and learned to survive in these wastelands. Deserts are scattered across the globe and today we are going to review 25 creatures that not only survive in the desert’s inhospitable climate, but thrive.
Table of Contents
1) Darkling Beetle (Tenebrionidae)
Darkling beetles refer to a larger collection of beetles known as Tenebrionidae, which consists of over 20,000 different species. Some of these species have been known to live in the Namib desert located in the African country of Namibia. To survive in their incredibly dry environment, Darkling Beetles have developed a remarkable adaptation. These tiny insects perform handstands and can collect the condensation produced by fog and dew on their bodies which trickles into their mouths.
2) Water-Holding Frog (Cyclorana platycephala)
The Australian outback is a dangerous place. Not only are there seemingly dangerous creatures around every corner, but the dry weather and extreme heat can make survival virtually impossible. On the surface anyway. That is why the water-holding frog burrows beneath the surface to find water and escape the heat. When it does rain, these frogs come to the surface again to eat and breed. What’s even more amazing, is that these frogs create a hard, waxy membrane around their skin that is perfect for preventing water loss.
3) Horned Viper (Vipera ammodytes)
Maybe one of the most ferocious-looking creatures in the desert is the horned viper. This animal is located mostly in northern Africa and Arabia. This viper is not only large but has long fangs and is extremely venomous. It gets its name from the two large horns protruding just above the viper’s eyes. This animal has adapted the “side-winding” movement for travel, which limits the amount of friction, and heat it generates as it moves about the desert.
4) Camel (Dromedary)
One of the most well-known animals that call the desert its home is the camel. In opposition to popular belief, the camel’s hump does not actually contain water. The hump is essentially an energy storage bank, a fat deposit that can sustain a camel for months if food is scarce. Camels with large humps were favored by riders and were bred for their trait.
5) Fennic Fox (Vulpes zerda)
The Fennic Fox is mostly found in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. This mammal is most recognizable by its large ears, which are used to radiate heat. This animal’s unique ears allow it to keep its body temperature low, helping to prevent dehydration and overheating. Their ear essentially act like natural radiators. Their body expels heat and catches the cool wind in the air.
6) Hyena (Crocuta)
The spotted hyena is possibly the desert’s most notorious villain. Hyenas can be throughout Africa and have a very distinguishable form of communication, laughter. These pack scavengers form clans to stalk prey and claim territory, and their clan’s hierarchy is detrimental to their survival in harsh climates. These mammals have adapted to be able to drink any available water, whether it is salt or freshwater.
7) Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum)
The Gila monster is a species of venomous lizard and is the state Reptile of Utah. The Gila monster is found in the southwestern United States, as well as northern Mexico. Its skin is covered in dark bands, helping it blend into its desert habitat. The Gila monster stays very still throughout large portions of the day to conserve energy and can drink up to 20 percent of its body weight in water during a single sitting. If a 150-pound human could do that, that would mean they could drink 30 pounds of water with dinner!
8) Desert Locust (Schistocera gregaria)
The desert locust can be found throughout most of Africa, west Asia, and Arabia. Many may have heard of these terrible swarms when they made their appearance in the Bible as one of the plagues of Egypt. These insects are migratory, meaning they must constantly chase their water and food source to survive and reproduce. Locusts occasionally feast on poisonous plants so predators avoid eating them. Their green hue camouflages them in green vegetation.
9) Desert Scorpion
Many different species of scorpion live in the desert, and all are identifiable by their pair of front claws, and menacing tail that supports a venomous stinger. The exoskeletons of these arachnids are extremely durable, providing protection from other predators. Scorpions are also nocturnal, which means they only move about at night when is it significantly cooler. As impressive as their appearance may be, the most fascinating survival adaptation desert scorpions have is the ability to slow their metabolism to one-third speed. This allows them to need to consume only a few insects per year for survival.
10) Desert Iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis)
To survive in its harsh environment, the desert iguana is remarkably small compared to its relative. This leads some scientists to think that this reptile has actually undergone, ‘evolutionary reversal’. Found in the southwest United States, typically in the Mohave deserts, the desert iguana is ideally designed for desert survival. With its small size and light-colored skin, it can easily find places to cool off and evade predators. They have been designed for digging and can even store enough water in their bodies to last for an entire winter.
11) Lowland Leopard Frog (Rana yavapaiensis)
The lowland leopard frog is commonly found in the Sonoran Desert, which spans across parts of Arizona, California, and Mexico. This creature needs water to survive, which is why its populations have begun dropping as wetlands become scarcer in their habitat. This reptile mates year-round and can do so in shallow, and even rapidly moving, waters, unlike other frogs.
12) Meerkats (Suricata suricatta)
The meerkat is a small, carnivorous mammal found in the deserts of Namibia. Meerkats have three unique characteristics that allow them to endure the harshness of desert life. The first of which is their eyes. Being able to spot predators early is key when you are as small, and almost defenseless, as a meerkat. Their eyes have dark patches around them which reduce the glare caused by the sun. Their eyes also have a protective membrane, which is especially helpful when they use their second survival tool, burrowing.
Meerkats dig tunnels underground which not only protect them from predators but also keep them cool. Finally, meerkats live in large families. Sometimes with as many as 50 members. These large groups help them care for the young and fend off danger if need be.
13) Spiny Chuckwalla (Sauromalus hispidus)
The Angle Island Chuckwalla, also known as the spiny chuckwalla, is a lizard that developed a truly unique way to defend itself from predators. When attacked, the spiny chuckwalla will climb into the crevasses of nearby rocks. Once inside, the chuckwalla will puff up its entire body, inflating its skin folds. This essentially gets the creature stuck inside of its hideout, making it very difficult for the predator to pull its prey out.
14) Cape Ground Squirrel (Xerus inauris)
The cape ground squirrel makes it home in southern Africa. This small mammal can burrow underground to escape predators or find relief from the scorching desert sun. These adaptations seem fairly common, but the cape ground squirrel sets itself apart by never leaving its home without a shade umbrella: its tail. The cape ground squirrel will orientate its bushy tail toward the sun and use it as its own personal shade tree.
15) Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)
A desert is a dangerous place, but sometimes these dangers can be used to an animal’s advantage. The cactus wren can be found in central and southern America and received their name from where they like to build their nests. By building their nests amongst the thorns of a cactus, they can have a safe haven from predators.
16) Roadrunner (Geococcyx)
The Greater Roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico and generally feeds on insects, spiders, and centipedes. As you may have suspected, the roadrunner has its name for one reason. It’s fast. This bird stands less than a foot tall but can reach speeds around 26 mph. This is incredibly useful when you need to escape one of the many predators lurking in the desert or snap up a beetle.
17) Kangaroo (Macropodidea)
The kangaroo is a herbivore known for its large feet, and pouch used for carrying their young. In Australia, there are more than twice as many kangaroos than people! What makes these animals able to survive so well in the desert is the adaptation to need very little water to survive. Some researchers say that kangaroos can go months without drinking any water at all. Kangaroos are also very intelligent and have been known to dig holes to catch rainwater in! Their hop is one of the most energy efficient means of land travel – useful when finding water.
18) Javalina (Tayassuidae)
The Javalina can be found in the deserts of Arizona, usually in areas with more dense vegetation. It is common knowledge that hogs will eat anything, and to survive in the desert, they have to. Javalina have extremely tough mouths and digestive systems that allow them to eat things most animals wouldn’t even go near, like cactus! Not only are cactus a source of food for the Javalina, but it is also a source of water.
19) Sand Grouse (Pteroclididae)
In the deserts of Africa, you never know when you will be able to find water. That’s why the Sand Grouse carries water with it! The feathers on the belly of the sand grouse are designed to absorb water, which allows them to carry over half an ounce of water with them. This is especially useful when trying to care for their young.
20) Sahara Desert Ant (Cataglyphis bicolor)
The Sahara Desert Ant lives, not surprisingly, in the Sahara Desert and is one of the most heat-resistant creatures on the planet. These ants can walk on surfaces over 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This means they have almost no restrictions on where or when they can search for food, which is primarily the remains of other animals.\
21) Black-Tailed Jack Rabbit (Lepus californicus)
The Black-Tailed Jack Rabbit lives in the western United States and northern Mexico. These rabbits are really fast and have adapted to eating essentially any plant, not excluding bark and twigs. Sometimes in the desert, even these items can be hard to find. This is why the Black-Tailed Jack Rabbit is even able to eat its own droppings for nutrients through a process called coprophagous.
22) Addax Antelope (Addax nasomaculatus)
In the Sahara Desert, water efficiency is the key to survival. The Addax Antelope is the model of this practice. To conserve water, the Addax Antelope can super concentrate its urine and excrete dry feces. This prevents them from unnecessarily losing a single drop of life-saving water. Unfortunately the Addax Antelope also have beautifully unique antlers. Sadly these marvelous beasts face extinction, with only 3 total remaining in the Sahara Desert.
23) Dorcas Gazelle (Gazella Dorcas)
Not to be outdone by the Addax Antelope, the Dorcas Gazelle has developed an even more efficient way of saving water. Located in the northern Ethiopian region, these remarkable animals can go their entire lives without drinking a drop of water. They can get all of the water they need through their diet, and even urinate small white pellets to conserve their body’s water supply.
24) Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
The Ostrich is commonly found on the continent of Africa and lays the largest eggs of any land animal on the planet. The powerful legs on these flightless birds allow them to run up to 40 mph, helping them escape predators. Their eyes have a thick layer coating them that protects them from the intense sandstorms that sometimes occur in desert environments. The ostrich is able to get most of the water needed for survival from the foods it eats, which is detrimental to the survival of any desert creature.
25) Camel Spider (Solifugae)
These inappropriately named arachnids are not quite spiders and not quite scorpions. Camel spiders have two forward appendages that make them appear to have 10 legs, but these appendages are sensory organs. Camel spiders have the reputation of chasing people, but they are simply trying to avoid the sun by staying in the person’s shadow! The arachnids like to stay off of the hot sand as much as they can, and tend to find cooler places to hide during the day.
These 25 desert animals with amazing survival skills, fight the harsh reality of their environments every day, and through evolutionary adaptations, they continue to survive. It is amazing to see the many different ways desert animals thrive in these seemingly impossible habitats. From conservation of bodily moisture to water transportation, wildlife finds a way. There is so much more to explore!