A desert is a place that is very dry. Deserts typically get only about 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation or less each year. That’s not very much water! But life is still possible in these dry conditions, thanks to desert adaptations!
Desert plants and animals adapted to survive in dry conditions over many, many generations. An adaptation is a trait or behavior that helps an organism survive in its environment. Adaptations evolve through a process called natural selection.
To understand natural selection, take the following example. Imagine that one individual plant of a plant species develops a random mutation that impacts the depth of its roots. The deeper-rooted version is better at getting water during droughts, so it more easily survives and passes on its genes. Repeat this over many generations, and you will see more and more of the deep-rooted version of the plant the habitat. That’s natural selection at work!
Now, let’s take a look at 8 amazing strategies that plants and animals use to survive in the desert!
1. Store water
A desert tortoise survives dry spells by storing extra water within its bladder. This can sustain it through times without rainfall and during periods of inactivity.
2. Escape the heat
Animals escape the desert sun inside of a den or cavity. For example, elf owls will hide inside of cavity nests in cacti during the heat of the day. Jackrabbits and prairie dogs find shade inside of dens underground when it is hot out.
3. Get water from food
Kangaroo rats are known for getting all the water they need through their food. They do not need to drink liquid water because the juices in the insects and plants they eat will sustain them. Kangaroo rats are not the only desert animals using this strategy. Some birds such as white-winged doves get water through food too.
4. Rest when it is hot
Crepuscular and nocturnal animals rest during the daytime when it is hottest. These animals hunt and forage in the evenings and at night to reduce the amount of energy they spend keeping their bodies cool. Examples of nocturnal animals include owls, bats, and kangaroo rats. Examples of crepuscular animals include mountain lions, deer, and jackrabbits.
5. Reduce water loss through thick skin
Both animals and plants try to avoid water loss in the desert. Animals such as scorpions have thick exoskeletons to avoid losing water. Many desert plants have thick, waxy skin or bark for this same purpose.
6. Reach deeper water
Many desert trees and plants have deep tap roots to reach down to deep groundwater sources. A great example of this is a mesquite tree. Trees like mesquites actually have such deep taproots that they try to tap into the water table. Plants like this are known as phreatophytes.
7. Lose your leaves
Big leaves are great for performing lots of photosynthesis, but big leaves also lose lots of water through transpiration. And in the desert, that’s no good! Desert plants developed with ways to live with less (or no) leaves. The ocotillo plant only briefly grows leaves when conditions are moist. Palo verde trees just have tiny leaves, but make up for this by also doing photosynthesis through their green bark. And most cacti have done away with leaves all together and perform photosynthesis through their green skin instead.
8. Defend your water
Desert plants must live on very little water. And to make things even harder, desert animals want to eat plants for both nutrients and water. Desert plants like cacti defend themselves from hungry, thirsty animals with sharp spines.
Nature Journaling Prompts
Ask your students to reflect on the following questions in their nature journals:
- Humans use a lot more water than animals. How can you live life using less water?
- Humans grow non-native plants in many places, for food, livestock feed, and landscaping. What problems might arise from growing non-desert plants in a desert?
Desert Adaptations Curriculum
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References and Further Reading
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (n.d.). Sonoran Desert Fact Sheets. Available: https://www.desertmuseum.org/kids/oz/long-fact-sheets/
- National Park Service (n.d.). Animals. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Arizona. Available: https://www.nps.gov/orpi/learn/nature/animals.htm
- Nevada Dept. of Wildlife (n.d.). Desert Kangaroo Rat. Available: https://www.ndow.org/species/desert-kangaroo-rat/
- National Park Service (n.d.). Animals. Saguaro National Park. Available: https://www.nps.gov/sagu/learn/nature/animals.htm
- San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (n.d.). Desert. Available: https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/habitats/desert
- Texas Parks and Wildlife (n.d.). Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus). Available: https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/rabbit/
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (n.d.). Desert Tortoise. Available: https://www.fws.gov/species/desert-tortoise-gopherus-agassizii