What is the climate like in the desert? What kinds of life can you find there? How do they handle the conditions in the desert?

Deserts are characterized by very low rainfall, usually less than 10 inches (25 cm) per year. Because there is very little vegetation or moisture in the air to retain heat, the hot days deserts are best known for are usually followed by very cold nights. Taken together, the extreme temperature fluctuations and lack of water make the desert environment a very harsh one in which to live. The plants and animals you will find there have a wide variety of adaptations that allow them to cope with desert conditions.

Because food and water are relatively scarce, desert animals have evolved habits that require very little energy and waste little water. For example, snakes, scorpions, and lizards that rely on hunting other animals for food are equipped with highly toxic venoms to kill their prey--this saves the hunter energy that would otherwise be needed to chase, catch, and fight its prey to the death.

To help conserve water that could be lost during the hot days, many desert animals are "nocturnal", meaning they are active only at night. These animals sleep during the day in cool underground burrows or in caves and come out at night to find food. Many animals also have protective coverings to keep them from drying out, like the scaly skins of snakes and lizards, and the hard outer coverings of insects.

Plants also need to save valuable water. Plants known as "ephemerals" have very short life cycles. They can sprout from seed, grow, produce flowers, and make seeds for the next generation in only 2-4 weeks! Their rapid growth allows them to take advantage of the desert's short rainy season which may last only a few days to a few weeks. The newly formed seeds have special waterproof coverings that prevent them from drying out. They will simply wait until the next year's rainy season to sprout and start the cycle over again.

Longer-lived plants, like the big saguaro cactus pictured here, store water inside their stems. Tough outer coverings help prevent evaporation and protective spines and thorns keep animals from stealing the water they store inside.

Submitted by David (England)
(February 10, 1998)

You might also be interested in:

What are the retrograde motions of planets in the sky?

It depends on what kind of motion you are talking about. When seen from the north pole of the celestial sphere all planets orbit around the Sun in a counter-clockwise or direct path. Most planets also...more

How do Astronauts Live in Space?

Almost everyone has a question or two about living in space. What do astronauts do in space? How do they do everyday things like eat, sleep and go to the bathroom? Well, this is our attempt to answer...more

How far is the Earth from the Sun, the Moon and all the other planets? How far are all of the planets from the Sun? Do you know of a software that tracks the planets in real-time?

There is a really neat internet program called Solar System Live that shows the position of all of the planets and the Sun for any given day. If you go to that page, you'll see an image similar to the...more

Is it really true that man never really walked on the Moon?

The picture of the American Flag (the one put there by the Apollo astronauts) is waving (or straight out) in the wind. How could that be possible if there is no atmosphere on the Moon? Was it some sort...more

How many planets orbit the sun?

I was wondering if there is a new planet? Are there planets (a tenth planet?) after Pluto belonging to our solar system? What are the names of the new planets discovered in the solar system? Are there...more

According to Stephen Hawking, any object with an energy which equals Plank's energy has to become a black hole.

If that is so, the energy released during the Big Bang must have created many such black holes. Therefore most of the Energy of the Big bang must have disappeared in that form. Then how did the Universe...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA