Fact Sheet
Desert

Desert Plants and Animals

Desert Plants

Most desert species have found remarkable ways to survive by evading drought. Desert succulents, such as cacti or rock plants (Lithops) for example, survive dry spells by accumulating moisture in their fleshy tissues. They have an extensive system of shallow roots to capture soil water only a few hours after it has rained. Additionally, many cacti and other stem-succulent plants of hot deserts present columnar growth, with leafless, vertically-erect, green trunks that maximize light interception during the early and late hours of the day, but avoid the midday sun, when excessive heat may damage plant tissues.

One of the most effective drought-survival adaptations for many species is the evolution of an ephemeral life-cycle. An ephemeral life cycle is characterized by a short life and the capacity to leave behind very hardy forms of propagation. This ability is found not only in plants but also in many invertebrates. Desert ephemerals are amazingly rapid growers capable of reproducing at a remarkably high rate during good seasons.

Desert Animals

Birds and large mammals can escape critical dry spells by migrating along the desert plains or up into the mountains. Smaller animals cannot migrate but regulate their environment by seeking out cool or shady places. In addition to flying to other habitats during the dry season, birds can reduce heat by soaring. Many rodents, invertebrates, and snakes avoid heat by spending the day in caves and burrows searching out food during the night. Animals active in the day reduce their activities by resting in the shade during the hotter hours.

More on Desert: Threats »

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