17 Animals Amazingly Adapted to Thrive in Deserts

African bullfrog

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It’s not often you can find a frog that can thrive in deserts and even highlands with elevations of 4,000 feet. The second largest frog on the African continent, this bullfrog has figured out ways to beat the heat. It simply buries itself until the weather improves. During hot, dry weather, the bullfrog can burrow into the ground and lie dormant in estivation, a hibernation-like state. They slough off skin to form a cocoon to hold in the body’s moisture and absorb the water stored in the bladder. It can lie in estivation for long periods of time — even longer than a year — and can survive losing as much as 38 percent of its body weight. When the rains arrive, the African bullfrog makes the most of it, returning to the surface to feed and breed. It can eat anything small enough to fit in its mouth, from birds to rodents to other frogs. (Text: Jaymi Heimbuch)

Costa's hummingbird

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Tiny jewels can be found in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, in the form of the Costa’s hummingbird, a species that thrives in a desert habitat. The tiny bird can escape the heat of the hottest summer days by migrating to chaparral or scrub habitat. Meanwhile, when the temperatures at night plummet, the hummingbird enters a state of torpor, slowing its heart rate from its usual 500-900 beats per minute to a slow 50 beats per minute, conserving energy. It gets all the water it needs from the nectar and insects it feeds on, though it doesn't mind taking a sip when a water source is available.

Sand cat

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This adorable little cat is practically a cartoon character — small, cute, and yet with superpowers for living in the desert. Found in northern Africa and central and southwest Asia, this is the only felid that lives in sandy desert habitat. Its ears are large and set low, which helps protect it from wind-blown sand as well as improves its ability to locate prey hiding underground. Its thickly furred paws help it cope with the extremes of hot and cold sand. Indeed, the sand cat can tolerate temperatures from below freezing at 23 degrees Fereinheit to scalding days of 126 degrees Ferinheit. To escape the extreme temperatures, sand cats inhabit burrows, taking up residence in those abandoned by foxes or rodents. They are active during the day in winter and are nocturnal during the summer.

Arabian oryx

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It is strange to think of a large mammal capable of living in intensely hot desert conditions, but the Arabian oryx shows us how successful they can be. This herbivore has a white coat to reflect the sunlight of the day, while its dark legs help absorb heat during cold desert mornings. It can sense rain over long distances and so can find fresh grasses and plants, and will even eat roots when no other forage is available. It feeds during dawn and late afternoon, resting in shaded areas during the mid-day heat. As for water, the Arabian oryx can go for days, and sometimes even weeks without a significant drink, finding enough water by drinking dew that has formed on the plants it eats or from the water content of plants themselves.

Arabian wolf

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The Arabian wolf is a subspecies of grey wolf that has adapted to live in impressively harsh conditions. This 40-pound wolf has a long coat in winter to insulate it against freezing temperatures, and while in summer it has a shorter coat, the longer fur remains along its back to help protect against the heat of the sun. It also has extra large ears to help disperse body heat. To escape the most miserable heat, it will dig deep dens and rest in the shade. To ensure it finds enough to eat, the Arabian wolf usually lives a solitary life except during breeding season or when food is readily found. Even then, they live only in pairs or small packs of 3-4 wolves. Its prey is anything from small birds, reptiles and hares to larger animals like gazelles and ibexes. But it cannot go entirely without water, so it sticks to gravel plains and the fringes of the desert.

Desert hedgehog

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One of the cutest residents of any desert is the desert hedgehog, found in Africa and the Middle East. Adapted to live in desert and arid scrub habitats, this species of hedgehog is one of the smallest, only reaching between 6-11 inches long. It survives by escaping the heat by staying in its burrow by day and hunting by night. It eats everything from insects and invertebrates to bird eggs to snakes and scorpions. By getting fluids from its prey, it can go for long periods of time without water.

Snow leopard

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Perhaps one of the most celebrated inhabitants of the Gobi desert, among other areas of inner Asia, is the snow leopard. Its high-altitude home is one of the toughest places to eek out an existence, but the snow leopard does it with grace. Its large chest helps it get enough oxygen from the thin air, while its large nasal cavities help warm the air before it hits the lungs. Its huge paws and extra long tail help it navigate the rocky terrain with excellent balance, and its long, thick coat also helps it get through the freezing temperatures.

Jerboa

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This tiny kangaroo-like creature is the jerboa, a rodent native to desert climes across North Africa, China and Mongolia. Species of jerboa can be found from the Sahara, the hottest desert in the world, to the Gobi, one of the coldest deserts in the world. At either extreme, you can find a member of the jerboa family happily burrowing beneath the ground. By using burrowing systems, the jerboa can escape the extreme heat or cold. Its short forearms and powerful hind legs are made for digging, and it has folds of skin that can close off their nostrils to sand, as well as special hairs to keep sand from getting in its ears. Its long back legs are also made for traveling rapidly while using minimal energy. Jerobas can get all the water they need from the vegetation and insects they eat. In fact, in laboratory studies, jerboas have lived off of only dry seeds for up to three years.

Sonoran pronghorn

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Pronghorn, the fastest land animal in North America, can be found across the continent. However, the Sonoran pronghorn has adapted to live in a particularly difficult environment. It can eat and digest plants that other herbivores won’t touch, including dry desert grasses and even cactuses. It has teeth with particularly high crowns to handle abrasive foods, and its four-part stomach extracts as many nutrients as possible. Its hollow hairs trap heat to insulate it against freezing night temperatures, but it can also raise patches of hair to release trapped heat and cool off on hot days. Though amazingly adapted for desert environments, more frequent and prolonged droughts due to climate change may be more than the species can handle. Only around 100 Sonoran pronghorn remain in the wild in the United States.

Meerkats

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Meerkats have become an iconic figure of the Kalahari desert. But not only is this species full of personality, it is also well adapted for its tough home. Meerkats have several physical features that make them well-suited for the desert life. They get a good deal of water from their diet, and dine on insects, snakes and scorpions. They are immune to scorpion venom and can tolerate up to six times the amount of snake venom that would kill a rabbit. They may eat roots and tubers if they are in need of additional water. They make use of burrow systems for escaping predators and harsh weather. They can close their ears to keep sand out, and have a third eyelid to protect their eyes. The dark coloration around their eyes further protects them by reducing the glare of the sun so they have a better chance of spotting danger.

Kalahari lions

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The Kalahari lion is a sub-species of African lion specially adapted to its desert environment. Physically, they have longer legs and leaner bodies, and males have much darker manes. They are built to have more endurance, and they need it. Living in smaller groups, these lions lay claim to larger territories and dine on smaller prey, from antelope to porcupines to birds. The Kalahari lions have a stronger resistance to thirst — they can go for two weeks without drinking water, relying on their prey for their moisture needs. They cool down their blood by panting, and sweat through the pads of their paws.

Couch's spadefoot toad

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This little toad has adapted better to desert conditions than any other amphibian in North America. It survives by doing, well, mostly nothing. It mostly stays in a burrow waiting for the rainy season. The Couch’s spadefoot toad can stay in a state of estivate for eight to 10 months out of the year, but if dry conditions require, it can stay in its burrow for twice that long. When rain does appear, the toads head straight for newly formed ponds. It can lay eggs within the first two days of reappearing, and tadpoles can hatch within 15-36 hours. It takes only a little more than a week for the tadpoles to transform into adults. The rush is important because in the desert, ponds dry up fast. Adults have to eat as many insects as they can before digging a burrow to nap for the next eight to 10 months.

Desert bighorn sheep

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An icon of the rugged landscape of the western United States, the bighorn sheep is one of the most majestic members of the desert ecosystem. It is also one that has adapted in amazing ways. Bighorn sheep can go for weeks without visiting a permanent water source, getting the water they need from food and rainwater found in small rock puddles. They also use their horns to split open barrel cactus and eat the watery flesh. When green grasses are available, they don’t need to drink at all, however during summers they need to drink water every few days. They can tolerate losing up to 20 percent of their body weight in water loss, and bounce back quickly from dehydration. By being able to survive for long periods away from a steady source of water, they can better avoid predators. They can also survive slight body temperature fluctuations, unlike many other mammals which need to maintain a steady temperature.

Elf owl

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An owl is a creature you might not expect to see in a desert, but the elf owl is quite at home in hot, sandy environments. These tiny owls are miniscule in size — standing only about 5 inches tall — and yet are tough enough to capture and dine on scorpions among other prey. Found in riparian areas of the Sonoran desert of the western U.S., they escape the heat of day by resting in tree cavities or holes in seguaro cacti left abandoned by woodpeckers. They hunt at night, using their exceptional low-light vision. By getting enough water from the food they consume, they are able to survive in areas that completely lack surface water sources.

Pallid bat

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Bats are an important part of any ecosystem but not just any bat can handle the tough environment of a desert. Found in western North America as well as in Cuba, the pallid bat prefers dry habitats of grassland, scrub desert, and is even found in Death Valley. The pallid bat is unique among bat species because it has the ability to control its body temperature, matching its internal temperature with its environment during winter hibernation and during rest to conserve energy. Also unique among bats is this species preference for catching prey on the ground; it almost never catches prey in mid-air, as other insectavorious bats do. Instead, it will swoop down on prey, capture it, and carry it to a more convenient location to eat. Though some desert dwellers get all the water they need from their prey, the pallid bat does need a water source nearby.

Ringtail

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The ringtail has an interesting place in the desert ecosystem. Also known by the moniker "miner's cat," this amazing climber is found in rocky outcroppings and, as the name suggests, mine shafts. It is able to scale anything from cliffs to cacti, rotating its hind feet 180 degrees for excellent grip. The species is found in the western United States, including in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. As is wise when living in harsh conditions, this mammal will eat just about anything — from fruit to insects to reptiles to small mammals — and it is active at night to escape the worst of the desert’s heat. It can survive without water if its diet provides enough moisture, but it prefers living near a water source.

Fennec fox

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The fennec fox is found in the deserts of North Africa. This nocturnal omnivore is equipped with enormous ears, which can be as large as one quarter of its entire body length, that help it to cool down by releasing heat from the blood that circulates through them. It also has a thick coat of fur that keeps it warm on frigid nights, and the fur covering its paws protects it from the hot sand while also helping it to keep from sinking into soft sand. The fennec fox eats plants as well as eggs, insects and pretty much anything else it can sink its teeth into. It can survive without access to free-standing water, thanks in part to kidneys adapted to minimize water loss.