How do plants & animals adapt to the desert?

Updated November 22, 2016

Desert climates are hot and dry, seemingly the worst possible environment for plant and animal life. Yet many plants and animals are able to adapt to desert temperatures and conditions. These plants and animals can tolerate lack of water, store water in their bodies, and reduce or tolerate high temperatures.

Desert Conditions

Deserts are areas in which the potential evaporation of water from plants and soil far outweighs the precipitation. Desert air is usually hot and dry, and water is not readily available. According to Pima Community College (PCC), a school located in the desert-like area of Tuscon, Ariz., plants and animals living in desert conditions have three choices: die, move or adapt. Many animals move as part of their adaptation process, hibernating during the hot day and coming out during the cooler night. Plants do not have this luxury; those that do not adapt will wilt and die.

Water Storage

Plants and animals that live in the desert must become capable of storing water. Plants store water in their roots, stems and leaves. Desert plants that are capable of this are called succulents.

Animals must also store water. Some animals, such as Gila monsters, store water in fatty deposits in their tails or other tissue.

Water Conservation

Organisms surviving in desert conditions must learn to conserve water so that the precious little bit of precipitation they get is not wasted. Some plants and animals are able to engage in torpor. Torpor is similar to hibernation; animals in turpor rest during the hot day and come out at night, when it is substantially cooler. Practicing torpor helps conserve water, as the organisms don't need it while in this state.

Reducing Heat

To survive in the desert, organisms must learn how to reduce heat. Plants are particularly good at adapting and can do so in several ways. According to PCC, plants can orient their leaves so that they are not directly exposed to sunlight. Some plants also develop reflective surfaces on their leaves to deflect sunlight.

Animals can reduce heat intake by remaining in shady areas or engaging in torpor. Fur also protects animals from the heat.

Dissipating Heat

Sometimes heat reduction does not reduce heat enough to ensure the organism's continued survival. This happens more frequently with animals than plants. Animals must then dissipate heat. Some animals have long ears or small bodies for the purpose of deflecting heat back to its source. Animals can also dissipate heat through evaporation; PCC says this causes them to lose a bit of water along with the heat.

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About the Author

Jack Ori has been a writer since 2009. He has worked with clients in the legal, financial and nonprofit industries, as well as contributed self-help articles to various publications.