The Physiological Adaptations of Desert Animals

Written by brenton shields
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  • Introduction

    The Physiological Adaptations of Desert Animals

    The desert can be an unforgiving place. Usually dry and hot, deserts like the Sahara, Mojave or Gobi are among the most dangerous terrains in the world. However, that hasn't stopped numerous animals from moving in and making themselves at home. Mammals, birds, reptiles and insects have all developed physiological adaptations that help them thrive in the harsh desert climates.

    Animals have developed physical adaptations to survive in the arid desert environments. (NA/ Images)

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    Preventing Water Loss

    The lack of water may be one of the most pressing survival issues for desert animals. Since rainfall is scarce in many deserts, animals have adapted methods of retaining it. Animals like the Gila Monster or desert camels store water in surplus fatty tissue. The Gila Monster will store the fat in its tail while the camels use their humps. When the fat is metabolised, it releases the stored water. Reptiles, in particular, like bearded dragons, excrete very dry fecal matter to save water.

    The Gila Monster's tail stores excess fat, which in turn stores water. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

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    Heat Dissipation

    Heat dissipation is the process of eliminating excess heat, keeping the animal cool. This is done by creating more surface area on the body, allowing for tiny, thin veins that can be air-cooled as they circulate blood. Some animals, like jackrabbits and Mule deer, have enormous ears that aid in dissipating heat. Animals like reptiles will often use long legs to keep their bodies perched above the hot sands.

    Jackrabbits use large ears containing tiny blood vessels to dissipate heat. (Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images)

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    While some animals in cold regions use their thick fur to keep in heat, many desert animals use it to keep out heat. Elk use their thick coats to block the sun's heat, insulating their bodies. Many birds do the same thing with their feathers. Their feathers can act as a shield, blocking out the sun's rays while simultaneously aiding in heat dissipation much like a jackrabbit's ears.

    Birds in desert environments rely on their feathers for insulation and protection from the extreme heat. (NA/ Images)

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    Aestivation is a type of desert hibernation that certain animals will undergo when conditions become too hot. Whereas other animals hibernate during the winter months, aestivation takes place during the summer. Some animals, like spadefoot toads, will cover themselves in mucus to retain moisture and retreat to an underground burrow. Others, like the desert tortoise, will eat as much food as it can handle between March and June and then retire to a cool burrow for the summer. During this time, animals undergoing aestivation experience slowed metabolic rates to retain energy.

    A desert tortoise will feed off of cacti and wildflowers before aestivating. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

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