16 Incredible Deserts Around the World

Full moon at sunset above glowing red mountains in the Atacama Desert, Chile.
Full moon at sunset above glowing red mountains in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

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A desert biome is a place of extremes—most notably, extremely little precipitation. This single most defining characteristic of deserts affects the landscape, the types of plants and animals that live there, and the ways in which they interact.

Despite their parched, seemingly barren lands, deserts can be places of striking biodiversity, as plants and animals adapt to the harsh environment. Here are 16 of the world’s most fascinating and surprising desert landscapes.

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Mojave Desert, United States

Mojave desert landscape with Joshua trees under sunrise sky.

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Rugged mountains and deep basins form the principal landscapes of the Mojave, which extend east of California’s Sierra Nevada range through southern Nevada. The Mojave is the smallest of North America’s four deserts, a transitional zone between the hotter Sonoran desert and the colder Great Basin. Volcanic fields, dunes, and cone-shaped alluvial fans, or bajadas, are other prominent features.

The Mojave is home to Death Valley, the lowest, driest, hottest place in the United States. Remarkably, thousands of plant and animal species survive here, including the iconic Joshua tree. Animals include rodents, jackrabbits, coyotes, desert tortoises, scorpions, snakes, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions. 

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Sonoran Desert, United States and Mexico

Saguaro cactus against rocky mountain and cloud-streaked blue sky

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The Sonoran Desert covers most of southern Arizona, as well as Sonora, Mexico, southeastern California, and Baja California. But within that vast area are subdivisions with distinctive altitudes, climates, geology, vegetation, and wildlife.

The emblematic saguaro cactus and mesquite tree are among the prominent flora. Larger mammals include the javelina, Mexican wolves, coyotes, bighorn sheep, and bobcats. Horned lizards, tortoises, gila monsters, tarantulas, and scorpions are also among the diverse wildlife here.

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Great Basin Desert, United States

Bare trees on a hillside in Great Basin National Park overlooking shrub and desert landscapes with pink storm clouds

Andrew Kearns/Flickr/CC By 2.0

This high-altitude, northernmost U.S. desert is the only cold desert in North America, with hot summers but frigid winters. It covers most of Nevada and parts of California, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah and consists of alternating mountains and basins, including the Great Salt Lake.

Sagebrush dominates the basins, while each mountain range is an isolated island of biodiversity with species like pine, spruce, and aspen. The Great Basin is home to deer, elk, and antelope, as well as the wild mustang.

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Chihuahuan Desert, United States and Mexico

Pink-orange boulders against a backdrop of rugged mountain peaks at Sierra Vista National Recreation Trail, New Mexico

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Spanning the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and reaching all the way to central Mexico, the Chihuahuan Desert is the most diverse in the Western Hemisphere and the largest in North America. From central New Mexico, it extends south to White Sands National Park and the Guadalupe Mountains, continuing through Chihuahua and five other Mexican states.

Mesas and mountains border desert valleys, home to yucca, agave, gypsum, and more than 400 cactus species. A variety of wildlife lives here, including mountain lions, endangered Mexican wolves, black-tailed prairie dogs, foxes, and mule deer. 

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Guajira Desert, Colombia

La Guajira peninsula near the Cabo de la Vela with orange sand, sparse shrubs and turquoise Caribbean Sea.

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In a country associated with lush, tropical landscapes and misty cloud forests, Colombia’s Guajira peninsula, which crosses into Venezuela, is a complete departure.

At the top of the South American continent, on a narrow finger of land jutting into the Caribbean, La Guajira’s red-orange dunes, salt flats, and rocky coastal bluffs contrast with occasional lush wetlands that support a diversity of life, including flamingos and the scarlet ibis.

Opossum, rabbits, deer, dozens of reptiles, and 145 species of birds call La Guajira home. Prominent vegetation includes legumes, thorn scrub trees, and a variety of cacti.

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Atacama Desert, Chile

Sandy flat with vegetation-less brown mountains in the Atacama Desert, Chile

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For a thousand miles, the Atacama desert extends along the northern coast of Chile, touching Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. One of the driest places on Earth, it supports little life, but some species have adapted to extreme conditions.

Scorpions, butterflies, wasps, the Atacama toad, lava lizards, and iguanas are among the desert fauna. Mineral-rich landscapes include salt flats and geysers, volcanic formations, and even lagoons, where many birds live or migrate, including sparrows, hummingbirds, and Andrean flamingos. Humboldt penguins, seals, and sea lions can be spotted along the coast.

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Patagonian Desert, Argentina

Patagonian Desert steppes at El Calafate with snow-capped mountains in the distance

Douglas Scortegagna/Flickr/CC By 2.0

The Patagonian desert is a cold-desert steppe, a series of plateaus that decrease in elevation from the Andes to the Atlantic coast of Argentina. Some portions are extremely dry and rocky; others are covered in shrubby plants adapted to year-round dry winds and frost.

One of the most unusual species here is the cushion plant, which looks like a large, bumpy pillow of soft moss. Among the mammals are weasels, opossums, fox, puma, and guanaco, a close relative of the llama.

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Antarctic Desert, Antarctica

A section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with mountains, viewed from a window of a NASA Operation IceBridge airplane on October 28, 2016

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Of all the deserts on Earth, the Antarctic is perhaps the most surprising. But it hardly ever rains or snows here, and when it does, it’s so cold that it accumulates as ice rather than ever melting. Apart from coastal areas, there are no trees or shrubs; only moss and algae adapted to extreme cold. Antarctic wildlife includes several species of penguins, seabirds, whales, and seals. Away from the coast, however, the vast continent is largely lifeless.

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Namib Desert, Namibia

Barren Namib Desert dunes next to deep blue Atlantic coastal waters.

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This otherworldly landscape of sand, rock, and mountains that stretch up and down Namibia to reach Angola and South Africa is home to the Skeleton Coast, infamous for shipwrecks caused by rough surf and heavy fog. That fog helps make this arid region hospitable to life.

Species have adapted well: there are fog-harvesting beetles, as well as plants like the extraordinarily long-lived Welwitschia mirabilis that make the most of scant moisture from soil and air. Perhaps most remarkable are the megafauna in this unforgiving land, including lions, mountain zebras, and desert elephants with an extraordinary talent for locating water.

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Kalahari Desert, Southern Africa

An indigenous quiver tree captured at dusk near Klein Pella in the Gordonia district on the South African and Namibian border, Kalahari Desert.

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Stretching across Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa, the Kalahari is southern Africa’s largest desert. Endemic plants here include the Hoodia cactus, which thrives in extremely high temperatures, and the camelthorn tree, an acacia that’s an important food and shade source for wildlife.

A subspecies of lion has unique features due to its adaptations to the harsh Kalahari, and an antelope called the gemsbok can survive weeks without water. Mobs of meerkats frolic here, consuming scorpions, snakes, and other venomous creatures without getting poisoned.

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Sahara Desert, North Africa

The Umm el Ma oasis with water and palms surrounded by sand dunes in the Libyan part of the Sahara at the Fezzan Awbari.

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Occupying 11 countries across North Africa, the Sahara is the world’s largest hot desert. The northernmost region contains mountains, volcanic fields, and the iconic sand dunes and oases. In the eastern Sahara lies the fertile Nile Valley, while the extremely dry central region is largely void of vegetation.

Gazelles, African wild dogs, camels, jackals, Algerian hedgehogs, the African wild ass, and hyenas inhabit the Sahara, along with endangered species like the Saharan cheetah, leopard, and North African ostrich.

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Syrian Desert, Middle East

The red sands of the Wadi Rum in Jordan with barren rocky mountains and storm clouds in background.
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The Syrian Desert spans eastern Jordan, southern Syria, and western Iraq, mostly within the Mesopotamian shrub desert ecoregion, a transitional area of rocky and sandy plateaus. Jordan also contains the Black Desert, strewn with volcanic basalt stones where petroglyphs indicate a previous abundance of water and trees.

The Syrian Desert hosts hardy, resourceful wildlife but is threatened by drought, overgrazing, and conflict. It has suffered considerable biodiversity loss, including cheetahs, ostriches, and wolves. 

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Arabian Desert, Arabian Peninsula

Camels walk in front of stark orange sand dunes in Central Saudi Arabia

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The Arabian Desert dunes stretch across most of the Arabian Peninsula, demanding innovative adaptations from flora and fauna. The ghaf tree has roots nearly 100 feet long in order to access water deep below the surface. The scrubby Ghada stabilizes the dunes and provides shade to many animals.

Wildlife includes the oryx, gazelles, and resourceful sand cats. Surface water sources are rare, but the desert sits atop a vast aquifer and features numerous oases with refreshing pools and palms. 

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Gobi Desert, China and Mongolia

Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs), Gobi Desert, Mongolia

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The Gobi Desert is a rainshadow desert nestled along the Himalayas and two smaller ranges. The fifth-largest desert on Earth, it’s also the fastest growing. It gobbles adjacent grasslands thanks to erosion triggered by massive deforestation and climate change.

Hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter, the Gobi ranges from sand dunes to grasslands to steppes. Wildlife here includes brown bears, the Asian wild ass, gazelles, wild Bactrian camels, and in the mountains, endangered snow leopards

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Tabernas Desert, Spain

Arid, sparsely vegetated mountains and palms in a sunny, winter Tabernas Desert landscape

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The Tabernas desert in southern Spain’s Almeria province looks like something out of an old western—because it is: Spaghetti westerns, including “Once Upon a Time in the West,” were filmed here.

Arguably Europe’s only true desert, it rains here in sudden downpours that carve out badlands and arroyos. In winter the delicate white blooms of toadflax linaria dot the dry land. Rabbits, dormice, and Algerian hedgehogs call the Tabernas home. Frogs, toads, and turtles inhabit wetlands, while ladder snakes, green ocellated lizards, tarantulas, and scorpions slither and crawl across the sand. 

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Australian Deserts

Limestone formations against a stormy sky at The Pinnacles in Nambung National Park, Australia

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Australia has 10 distinct deserts that collectively cover a fifth of the continent and form part of the vast inland Outback. The Great Victoria Desert is the biggest, while several others—the Great Sandy Desert, the Little Sandy Desert, and the Gibson Desert —form the Western Desert.

Waterholes scattered about this harsh landscape sustain an abundance of wildlife, from amphibians to marsupials like endangered rock wallabies, bilbies, and kangaroos, to pink cockatoos, bats, dingoes, and numerous species of lizards, spiders, and snakes.

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