The most noticeable thing about the addax is its long, twisted horns. These horns are anywhere from 55-85 centimeters (22-45 inches) long! They give them one of their alternate names, the screwhorn antelope, but its other name, the white antelope, really only applies to them during the summer. Their coat turns white, helping them with the heat from the sun. It is grayish-brown in other seasons.
The addax has adapted to desert life quite well. Aside from the changing of their coat color, they tend to be nocturnal animals, especially during the summer. During the day time, they find a shady location and dig into the sand. They use these areas not only to stay cooler, but also as protection from sandstorms.
What really helps the addax survive in the desert, though, is its ability to go for extremely long periods without water. This is because they can collect water from their food and they have a special lining in their stomachs that stores water. When water isn’t available, these pouches of water are then used to prevent dehydration.
02. Arizona Blonde Tarantula
The Arizona Blond Tarantula is a spider that gets its name from the light tan colored hairs present on the females – the males actually have much darker hairs. The females are also more robust than the males of the species. They live almost exclusively in Arizona, though they are sometimes seen in neighboring parts of Mexico and New Mexico.
These spiders survive life in the desert by spending most of their time inside their burrows. The burrows are lined with soil, rocks, and the silk produced by the tarantulas – which strengthens the burrow. This provides them not only with shelter from predators, but also gives them a cool place to stay during the hot desert days before they come out to hunt at night. This is how they beat the extreme elements associated with desert life.
While their venom is not a danger to humans, it is more than enough to kill the insects that they feed on. The venom actually liquefies their prey, allowing the tarantula to suck their meals straight into their stomachs – like you would drink a milkshake through a straw. Aside from their venom, tarantulas are able to fend off would be attackers in another way – with their hair! The Arizona Blond can actually shoot the hairs from its body into a would-be predator’s face, causing burning and irritation to the eyes, nose, and wherever else it is unlucky enough to get hit!
03. Burrowing Owl
Burrowing owls are tiny owls that nest in burrows. They sometimes dig these burrows themselves if the soil is not too hard, but they will often take over abandoned burrows dug out by animals such as prairie dogs. They are different from most owls in that they are active during the day, though they burrow during the midday heat and do their hunting at night.
Burrowing owls will find a place to perch near the ground and use their excellent night vision to hunt for prey. They either swoop down to catch their meal off the ground, or in the case of flying insects, they will fly up and catch them in flight. In some places where there aren’t as many prey animals, they will also feed on fruits and seeds from plants such as the prickly pear cactus.
Although officially rated by the IUCN as being in an animal of Least Concern, the Burrowing owl is threatened in Mexico and endangered in Canada. It is also considered threatened in Colorado, and is a species of special concern in Florida and the Western United States. This is due to the loss of habitat and prairie dog control programs. This is being combated with manmade burrows to help relocate the owls.
The cougar is a large cat species living in the Americas. It is the second heaviest cat in the Western Hemisphere, behind the jaguar, and the fourth largest cat in the world. It has the largest range of any wild land-based animal in the entire Western Hemisphere, living from the Yukon Mountains in Canada to the Southern Andes Mountains of South America. This wide range is due to the cougar’s ability to adapt to almost every habitat found in the Americas – including deserts.
One reason cougars can survive in the desert are their willingness to eat basically any animal it can catch, even insects and rodents. This is a key factor considering that wildlife is so scarce in the desert. Additionally, their large hunting range of approximate 300 square miles means that they can cover great distances looking for food if prey in one area becomes scarce.
Cougars are ambush predators that like to hunt at either dusk or dawn. When pursuing prey, they can run at speeds of 35 miles per hour for short bursts. They are also incredibly agile, able to leap up to 18 feet in the air or jump a length of up to 20 feet! This means the cougar doesn’t need to be as close to its prey before leaping for the kill. Additionally, they have been known to drop down from an elevated position onto an animal and can actually drop onto their meal from heights of up to 50 feet without suffering injury.
Coyotes are a type of canine (dog species) that live throughout North and Central America. Their name comes from the Aztec word cóyotl, which means trickster. They were also known as tricksters to many Native American tribes throughout North America. This is because of their reputations for being inventive, mischievous, and evasive. They are so evasive, in fact, that most coyotes go their entire lives without actually being seen by humans, despite sometimes living in suburban areas.
The inventiveness of the coyote has a lot of bearing on how they survive in the desert. They seek out water from a variety of sources, both natural and manmade. A large portion of their water comes from things such as swimming pools, water dishes people set out for their pets and water hazards on golf courses. They do get moisture naturally from their diet, which includes plants, a fact that some find surprising as coyotes are known to be carnivores. One desert plant that they eat is called the coyote melon. It is so called because the taste is said to be very unpleasant and coyotes are one of only two animals (along with the javelin) that will eat it.
Coyotes are known to both hunt alone and in packs, depending upon the prey. Smaller mammals such as rabbits and squirrels are generally hunted alone, while they work in groups to hunt larger animals like deer or ponies. They use their excellent sense of smell to track potential prey before running their quarry over long distances, exhausting the victim before going in for the kill.
The deathstalker is a particularly venomous type of scorpion found in the deserts of Northern Africa and the Middle East. Its scientific name, Leiurus quinquestriatus, translates to “five-striped smooth-tail”. They are a very aggressive type of scorpion, showing traits of nervousness and easy agitation.
While most scorpions have thick and stalky limbs, the deathstalker has very thin, lanky ones. While they do have large pinchers, they are not very powerful in comparison to other scorpions. This means they can’t hold their prey as well and must use their stinger quickly to inject their lethal venom before their meal can escape. One major difference between deathstalkers and other types of scorpions is that they require much less humidity to survive than others, an adaptation that allows them to live in the dry environment of the desert.
This scorpion is seen as a particularly dangerous species thanks to its venom, which is a mixture of neurotoxins – that means their poison effects the nervous system. It is actually the third most venomous scorpion in the world. If a healthy adult human is stung by a deathstalker, it will be extremely painful, but will most likely not be lethal. However elderly people, people who are allergic, people with illnesses such as a heart condition, and young children are at a greater risk of dying from the deathstalker’s sting.
07. Desert Bighorn Sheep
The desert bighorn sheep is a stocky and heavy sheep. They develop their horns not long after birth and the horns continue to grow throughout their lives. The males have horns that curl as they get bigger, whereas the female horns stay straighter. After about eight years of growth, the horns can grow to a circumference of more than one foot at the base of the horns and weigh more than 30 pounds!
Desert bighorn sheep are very similar to other bighorn sheep in all ways except for their desert adaptations. Life in the desert is about dealing with not only extreme heat, but extreme cold as well. These sheep can safely change their body temperature by several degrees, unlike most mammals, which allows them to endure the extreme desert temperatures. That being said, when it is very hot, the desert bighorn can be found resting in the shade or inside caves.
The biggest adaptation for the desert bighorn sheep, though, is its ability to function for long periods of time without drinking water. This allows them to live in areas with little or no permanent water sources, saving them from many of their potential predators who cannot do the same. These sheep can go weeks or even months without visiting a watering hole, instead getting their water from food. They actually have the ability to lose up to 30% of their overall body weight and survive before quickly recovering from the dehydration when they finally drink.
08. Desert Crocodile
When thinking about animals that live in the desert, the first one that comes to mind certainly isn’t a crocodile. Scientists, however, have discovered that just at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, there are a group of Nile crocodiles that have adapted over the years to desert life. They are much smaller than traditional Nile crocodiles, having a type of dwarfism attributed to the lack of prey for them in the desert. The lack of food causes them to grow more slowly and reach a size about 25% of their counterparts outside the desert.
Crocodiles are associated with bodies of water. While there are no permanent sources of water, there are gueltas, which are pools of water formed from rain or even underground springs. A guelta provides the desert crocodile with moisture and a more natural hunting habitat – other animals will come to the guelta to drink and the crocodile can ambush them from inside the water, just like a traditional crocodile.
Once the water evaporates from the guelta, the desert crocodile survives through a process known as aestivation. This is a state where an animal goes dormant, similar to hibernation, where they become inactive, lowering their metabolic rate. This allows them to use less moisture and energy through the dry spells. All crocodiles are able to aestivate, but the desert crocodile can do it for much longer and in much dryer conditions than is usually seen in crocodiles.
09. Desert Iguana
The desert iguana is the fastest lizard in the desert. They are able to curl their tails over their bodies while running. They also tuck their front legs up to their bodies and run on their back legs at very high speeds. When foraging for plants to eat, desert iguanas have been seen climbing up to six and a half feet high to feed.
Desert iguanas can cope with much higher temperatures than other lizards. This means that they can be out foraging when other lizards can’t, giving them more access to food. That’s why they are so much bigger than most lizards found in the desert.
When they do need to get out of the heat, they dwell in underground burrows. They will either dig in mounds of sand at the base of creosote bushes or use a burrow made by a kit fox or desert tortoise as shelter.
Although they eat many types of plants, desert iguanas seem to be particularly attracted to yellow wildflowers, in particular the yellow blossoms of the creosote bush. There have been cases of desert iguanas eating insects and even feces in some cases, but due to their ability to be out when it is too hot for other lizards, they rarely need to eat these things as there is more opportunity for them to forage.
10. Desert Tortoise
The desert tortoise is a type of tortoise found in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, as well as the Sinaloan thornscrub of northwestern Mexico. These tortoises are quite amazing as they can live in places that have temperatures in excess of 140 degrees Fahrenheit! They are able to survive that heat because of the underground burrows that they dig.
Desert tortoises spend about 95% of their lives living in their burrows. During the winter, they hibernate for months to avoid the cold. During the summer, staying in their burrows helps them to not only escape the direct sunlight, but keeps them cooler by regulating their body temperature and reducing the amount of water they lose.
Aside from the burrows helping to keep the desert tortoise cool and cut down on its water loss, they also have another method of retaining moisture. They have adapted a very large bladder which allows them to store over 40% of their own body weight in water. This means that after a rainfall, the desert tortoise can fill its bladder with so much water that it will allow the tortoise to live a year or longer without access to water again. Additionally, any moisture that it receives from its food can be stored in the bladder to replace water lost over time. This keeps the tortoise hydrated through the dry times.
Dingoes are wild dogs that roam the continent of Australia. These aren’t your friendly family pets by any means though; they are wild animals that are proven killers. Dingoes are opportunistic predators, and that is how they survive in the desert. However, they cannot go for long periods without water, so they are not as well adapted to desert life as some of the other animals in this book.
Dingoes hunt in a variety of ways, depending on how large their victim is. For smaller prey such as rabbits, they will hunt alone and simply use their speed and skill at turning corners to catch the animal and kill it by biting its throat.
When it comes to larger prey, dingoes like to hunt in groups for their own safety. They use team work and intelligence to catch their prey. Most commonly, one or two dingoes will chase the target and run it towards a group of waiting dingoes who then leap on to the animal and finish it off with the same bite to the throat that is used in smaller animals. Dingoes have actually been observed using man-made structures to their advantage as well, chasing their prey towards fences so that they are cornered and caught.
12. Dorcas Gazelle
The Dorcas gazelle is well adapted to desert life. They can literally go their entire lives without drinking water! This is because all of the moisture they need to survive comes from what they eat. That being said, if water is around, they do drink it. They are also able to cope with high temperatures, but if the heat gets too extreme, they will become active only at night in order to stay cool.
These small gazelles are extremely fast. When they are threatened by predators, they will twitch their tails and bounce their heads, signaling to one another that they have seen a threat. They then run off at speeds from 80-96 km/h (50-60 mph) often making zigzag patterns during their escape, especially when pursued by faster predators such as cheetahs.
The Dorcas gazelle has seen a decline in population across its range. Predation has been a threat to their population. The main predators have been humans, cheetahs, leopards, Arabian wolves, and lions. The biggest threat to their numbers, however, has been human expansion for farmland. It destroys their habitat and also introduces domestic sheep and goats, which eat the grasses that the Dorcas would normally feed on.
The dromedary is the second largest species of camel in the world – behind only the Bactrian camel. It is easily recognized by its single hump on its back. This hump, which is made up of fat, can be broken down into water and energy when food is not available. Another odd feature of these animals is that male dromedaries have a soft palate that they inflate and hang out of the side of their mouths. It is used to attract females and is often mistaken for their tongue.
Dromedaries have adapted well to desert life. They have very bushy eyebrows and two rows of eyelashes to protect their eyes during sandstorms. Additionally, they can close their nostrils and have protective hair lining their ears to keep sand out. When water is scarce, dromedaries can change their body temperature by as much as six degrees Celsius, allowing the heat to flow out of them and lessening their need to sweat. Finally, they have special kidneys that allow them to survive water loss of more than 30% of their own body weight – 15% would kill most animals.
The dromedary has been around for over 10,000 years and its adaptation to the desert is what made it a favorite for domestication. Their ability to traverse the desert with so little water, sandstorm protection, and the ability to carry large loads made them vital to trade opening up over the Sahara Desert. Their toughness along with their patience and how easily they can be trained has made them the choice beast of burden in desert areas.
14. Elf Owl
The elf Owl holds the distinction of being the world’s lightest owl. These tiny owls live inside of Saguaro cacti in holes created by woodpeckers. The cactus provides the owl with shade from the desert sun.
They are known for being non-aggressive and will actually ‘“play dead” when confronted with a dangerous situation. They spend spring and summer in Arizona and New Mexico before returning home to Central and Southern Mexico for the winter.
Elf owls hunt at night to stay out of the heat. Since they feed mostly on flying insects, they like areas with lots of agaves and ocotillos because moths and other insects like to sleep inside the flowers of these plants. The elf owl will fly after their prey and pluck them out of the air in midflight.
15. Gila Monster
The Gila monster is one of only two types of venomous lizards in North America, and is the only one native to the United States. Despite being venomous, they pose little danger to humans because they move so slowly. Their lack of speed helps the Gila monster to conserve energy and keep its body heat down in the extreme desert temperature.
A Gila monster will spend about 90% of its time in underground burrows, avoiding the sun. The lizard will only generally be active during the morning in springtime and early summer. When summer gets hotter, they stick to being active only at night. This is all part of their need to keep their body temperature around 300C (860F).
The Gila monster has a very powerful sense of smell that it uses to locate its prey. With live prey, the lizard will either crush the animal to death before swallowing it whole, or eat it alive if it is smaller. In the case of eggs, Gila monsters will dig them out of the ground or climb trees to take eggs from nests.
16. Greater Roadrunner
The greater roadrunner is a member of the cuckoo family, and it is known for its long legs and running quickly along roads in front of moving cars – hence its name. They build their nests low in cactus trees or bushes. It chases down its prey, which are mostly insects though they do feed on reptiles, rodents, and small birds, too. When dealing with the larger prey, they kill them either by striking their beak on the base of the animal’s neck or by holding the victim and beating it against a rock.
Roadrunners can fly, but weakly, they spend the majority of their time on the ground. They average a running speed of about 32 km/h (20 mph), but there are reports of the greater roadrunner hitting speeds of 42 km/h (26 mph) in some cases. This makes it the second fastest bird on land behind the ostrich, and the fastest runner of any flying bird.
The greater roadrunner has adapted to the desert by simply not requiring much water to survive. Between the water in its prey and the moisture in the fruits it eats, the roadrunner gets enough water to survive the desert. Additionally, it is able to adjust its temperature in order to fight the cold desert nights.
The ostrich is a flightless bird known for being the fastest running bird in the world – reaching speeds of around 70 km/h (43 mph). They are the largest living species of bird and are also known for their reaction to being threatened – they lie flat on the ground or run away. If cornered, however, they will attack with powerful kicks to defend themselves.
Ostriches are most active either early or late in the day, helping them to conserve energy and moisture during the hottest parts of the desert days. They also become active on nights when the moon is bright. They have incredible eyesight and hearing, which helps them see potential predators and use either their high speed to run away or simply lie down. Lying down with their head and neck flat on the ground makes them appear as just a mound of earth, with the haze of the desert heat helping the illusion. Ostriches don’t actually stick their head in the ground as many people believe. The way they lay on the ground can just make it look that way.
Ostriches usually try to stay away from people, taking them as predators, and will usually run away when approached. They will sometimes become aggressive, especially if cornered, and can seriously hurt or even kill a person with their strong kicks!
The perentie is the largest of all lizards known as goannas, and is rivaled by the crocodile monitor for the title of third largest monitor lizard in the world. As with all goannas, they have forked tongues like a snake that they use to help sense their prey. Also like a snake, they have a venomous bite!
Perenties tend to seek shelter in caves or crevices in rocks, but if there are no rocks around, they can dig burrows in the sand with their front legs and claws. Since they are cold blooded animals, perenties are constantly alternating between sun, shade, and shelter in order to keep their body heat at its proper level. They have also been observed climbing shrubs and trees to catch a breeze when they need to cool down.
When they feel threatened, perenties raise their bodies up and begin making a loud hissing sound. They can defend themselves by biting, scratching with their sharp front claws, or striking with their powerful tails. They also use all of these tools at meal time, preying on basically any animal that they can overpower – even small kangaroos!
19. Red Kangaroo
The red kangaroo is the largest of the kangaroos. They are well known for their hopping ability – able to leap up to nine meters (30 feet) in one bound. They are also known for using their powerful hind legs to kick threats away with an impressive amount of force.
They have adapted to desert life through a series of physical and behavioral adjustments that keeps their internal temperature steady. Some of these adaptations include panting, sweating, an insulating layer of fur, and staying in the shade while being less active during the day. Additionally, they are good at conserving water and have specialized kidneys that help them stay hydrated in the desert heat.
Red kangaroos have a reputation as “boxers”. This is because of the ritualistic fighting that generally occurs between younger males. Two kangaroos will stand up on their hind legs and being jabbing and pushing at one another, trying to knock each other off balance. If the fight escalates, they will rock back on their tails and deliver a powerful kick with their hind legs.
20. Red-Tailed Hawk
The red-tailed hawk is a raptor (bird of prey) from North America that is an opportunistic predator. This is a large part of why it is so successful in the desert. Having a broader range of prey gives it the ability’ to eat when there are few options available in the barren desert habitat.
These hawks have a flight method that allows them to conserve energy in the desert heat. They fly slowly and deliberately, gliding as much as possible. They reach speeds anywhere from 20 to 40 miles per hour when gliding like this. When prey is spotted, they dive at a much greater speed, in excess of 120 miles per hour!
The red-tailed hawk is easily trained, making it very popular in the sport of falconry. They learn quickly, following human cues to know when a prey opportunity is coming. They do not return the prey to the hunter, however. The hunter must locate the hawk and trade it a piece of meat for the captured animal.
21. Rock Hyrax
The rock hyrax is an animal that looks a lot like a guinea pig, but it’s not actually related. Amazingly the closest living relative to the rock hyrax is the elephant! They live and forage for food in groups of anywhere from 10 to 80. They show great intelligence and use members of their groups to stand guard while foraging.
Hyraxes get a lot of moisture from the plants they eat, allowing them to go for many days without water. They are only active in the morning and the evening, helping to keep their body temperature down in the desert heat. They actually spend 95% of their lives resting.
Rock hyraxes are very social animals. They make at least 21 different vocalizations to communicate with one another, and studies have shown different variations of their “songs” from region to region. They also have distinct grunts to show signs of aggression, and warning cries that act as an alarm to others in the group when a predator is spotted. Some of these predators would include leopards, cobras, puff adders, and wild dogs.
This viper gets its name from how it moves across the desert sands it inhabits. They move by throwing their body back and forth in a J-shape, only having two parts of their bodies touching the ground at any given time. This selves two purposes: giving the snake more traction on the loose sand and minimizing the body surface touching the hot sand – preventing overheating.
Sidewinders are relatively small snakes. They also have small venom glands and are much less dangerous than most other types of rattlesnakes. Still, they do have the potential to be fatal to humans and anyone bitten should seek medical help. Another unique aspect to their look is that they have raised scales above their eyes that help both to shade the eyes from the sun and prevent sand from getting in their eyes. They look almost like horns above the eyes, giving them one of their nicknames – the horned rattlesnake.
Juvenile sidewinders have a particularly fascinating method of hunting prey. They use what is called caudal luring to attract lizards. They use their tails to either resemble a fluttering moth with fast movements or to resemble a caterpillar with slower movements. This is a behavior that they stop using as they grow and begin preying on larger animals.
23. Texas Horned Lizard
The Texas horned lizard is a spikey-bodied lizard that has adapted to desert life by using burrows. Underground burrows keep this lizard from overheating during the extreme heat and keep it insulated from the extreme cold that desert animals experience at night. More rounded than most lizards, they were originally confused for toads or frogs – hence their popular name, “horny toads.”
The Texas horned lizard uses camouflage to hide from predators as best it can, but if discovered it will puff up, causing its spikes to stick out even more, making it look difficult to swallow. Additionally, it can squirt blood from the corners of its eyes up to one and a half meters (five feet)! This confuses the predator, but additionally the blood contains a chemical that makes it taste terrible.
Even though they look fairly fearsome, Texas horned lizards are not at all aggressive and don’t bite. If captured, they will go completely limp in a human’s hand – playing dead. This made them popular pets in the past, but today it is illegal to own them. They bathe for a while in the sun during the day to get vitamin D, and bury themselves in the sand overnight, keeping themselves sheltered from the elements and hidden from predators.
24. Turkey Vulture
The turkey vulture is a scavenger that is widespread throughout most of the Americas. They feed exclusively on carrion, using their incredible senses of smell and sight to find decaying animals. It gets its name from its dark plumage and bald head, which looks like a male turkey.
Turkey vultures tend to roost in large communal groups – sometimes with several hundred vultures in one group. They often roost on dead, leafless trees, but they will roost on manmade structures as well. They also have some unusual behaviors. The first is an unusual stance they take up with their wings spread out. This serves several purposes; drying their wings, warming their body, and baking off bacteria from the carrion they dine on. Another unusual behavior they have is urinating and defecating (that’s peeing and pooping to you!) on their own legs in order to help keep their body cooler. A cold shower turkey vulture style!
Turkey vultures are often seen hopping on the ground when feeding. This is because they move awkwardly when not in flight. They also have to use quite a bit of effort to take flight from the ground, they hop in an attempt to push off the ground while flapping their wings. Despite this awkwardness on the ground, turkey vultures soar gracefully through the air, using their massive wingspan to glide with few flaps of their wings, saving on the amount of energy they have to expend.
25. Water-Holding Frog
Litoria platycephala is known as the waterholding frog because, well, it can hold water. Their unique ability to retain large amounts of water not only keeps them hydrated in the dry Australian desert, but they also provide a source of water to the native Australian Aborigines. The Aboriginal people will dig up the frogs from their burrows in the sand and apply light pressure to them, squeezing fresh water into their mouths before releasing the frogs unharmed.
Aside from its amazing ability to retain water, the water-holding frog also survives the desert by using what is known as aestivation. This is a process similar to how a bear hibernates. The frog becomes inactive within its burrow and its metabolism slows down, allowing it to both remain cooler and use less energy and moisture while it avoids the heat of the desert summer.
On the occasions rain does come to the dry Australian deserts, the water-holding frog takes full advantage. Not only do they fill up on water from the rain, but they lay their eggs in the pools of water left behind. By the time the pools dry up, the eggs have already hatched into tadpoles that then develop into frogs. Then the water-holding frog digs itself into the ground and goes into its aestivation period again.