Desert Biome : Plants and Animals

Desert plants need special ways of getting water.
Their leaves and roots are special.
Desert animals have special ways to survive.
Many shelter underground during the day.
Some animals are active at night when it is cool.

Desert Plants
The amount and kinds of plants vary according to where a desert is located. Short grasses can be found in nearly all deserts. Desert plants include sagebrush, creosote bushes and cacti. The saguaro (say suh-hwah-roe) cactus is found only in the Sonoran desert of North America and spinifex is found in the Australian desert.

Plant adaptations
Desert plants have had to develop different ways of capturing water in order to survive in their habitat. These changes are called adaptation. A common adaptation the development of ways to store water in the roots, stems, leaves or fruit. Plants that store water in this way are called succulents, one of which is the cactus. Some plants have developed very long roots that go deep into the ground to reach underground water. Others have developed spreading root systems lying just below the surface and stretching widely. This gives the plant many tiny roots that capture water when it rains.

Some adaptations are unique. The Australian mulga tree has a unique way of collecting water. Its tiny leaves grow upward, forming a series of funnels that send rain water along the branches and down the trunk to the ground, where the roots are concentrated close to the base of the tree.

Another desert adaptation is seen in the leaves. Desert plants limit water loss through their leaf surface by the size, sheen, or texture of their leaves. Small or spiny leaves limit the surface area exposed to the drying heat. Glossy leaves reflect the sun's rays, reducing leaf temperatures and evaporation rates. Waxy leaves prevent moisture from escaping. Some plants only open their leaf pores at night when it is cool and water loss from leaves is low.

Desert Animals
Deserts are home to many reptiles, insects, birds, and small mammals. Few large animals have adapted to desert life because their size makes it difficult to find shelter from the heat and they are not able to store water. Australia's bilby and kowari and the kangaroo mice of North America are just a few examples of small mammals that live in the desert.

Animal adaptations
In order to survive, desert animals have developed a number of ways of adapting to their habitat. The most common adaptation in behaviour is staying in the shade of plants or rocks or by burrowing underground in the heat of the day. Many desert animals are nocturnal: they stay inactive in shelter during the day and hunt at night when it is cool.

Some animals get all the moisture they need from the insects, plants and seeds they eat, and do not need to drink water. Most pass little moisture out of their bodies. They do not have sweat glands and pass only small amounts of concentrated urine.

Fat increases body heat, so some desert animals have concentrated the body's fat in one place, such as a hump or tail, rather than having it all through the body.

Some animals develop unique ways of surviving. The Thorny Devil, a lizard that lives in Australian desert areas, has a body that channels raindrops directly into its mouth when rain falls. The water-holding frog spends most of the year under the ground in Australian desert areas, and develop a sort of cocoon that enables them to store water to keep them going through the dry times. When it rains, they emerge to lay their eggs in puddles. The eggs hatch within days and the tadpoles develop quickly, before the water dries out.

Camels are one of the few large mammals to survive in the desert, and have many special adaptations to help them.


Find out more about deserts.

Go here to read about Australia's Simpson Desert
Go here to read about the Gobi Desert

Here you will find information about the Simpson and many other deserts in Australia: about the climate and about land systems there

Find out about other biomes:
water .. rainforest .. tundra .. taiga .. deciduous forests ..grassland

If you use any part of this in your work, acknowledge it in your bibliography like this:
Sydenham, S. & Thomas, R. Desert Biome [Online] [2002]

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