In this guide, you can find out what kinds of desert animals there are and how they've adapted to live in the harsh desert environment.
What are desert animals?
Desert animals are animals that have adapted to live in a desert habitat. They tend to have different characteristics to animals in other habitats because of the harsh conditions in their environment.
There are 23 deserts in the world and each one has a range of different desert animals. There are two different types of desert: hot and cold. While we would usually think of somewhere hot and filled with sand dunes when we say ‘desert’, the biggest desert in the world is actually in Antarctica. Desert animals can be very different, depending on whether they live in a hot or a cold desert.
Despite their reputation for being barren and empty, deserts are full of a vast variety of wildlife that has adapted to its harsh conditions.
What animals live in the desert?
Many birds, reptiles, mammals, and insects live in the desert. In the Sonoran Desert (Arizona, US) alone, there are over 500 bird species, 130 mammal species, 100 reptiles species and more than 2,500 plant species! Here are some examples of the most common desert animals.
Hot, dry desert
The first on this list of desert animals is the fennec fox. The fennec fox is a mammal that lives both in North Africa and the Middle East. It is a member of the Canidae dog family and is pretty small, measuring up to just 41 cm in length.
The most distinctive feature of the fennec fox is its big, long ears, which can measure up to 15 cm in length. In comparison to this desert animal’s petite frame, its ears appear huge. These ears, in addition to looking very sweet, actually serve a very practical purpose. Having such big ears allows fennec foxes to have extremely sensitive hearing, which helps them to track down prey that is underground. What’s more, fennec foxes’ ears are also helpful for keeping them cool. This is because the blood vessels close to the skin in the ears dissipate their body heat into the air.
In addition to their big ears, fennec foxes have a number of adaptations that allow them to thrive in the desert:
Thick fur: These desert animals have a super thick coat, which is designed to keep them warm at night, when temperatures in the Sahara Desert can drop below 0 °C. They also have thick fur on their paws, which helps them grip things and protects them from the hot sand.
Pale orange coat: The pale colour of fennec foxes’ coat reflects heat from the sun, helping them to stay cool. The colour of their coat also enables them to camouflage into the sand and rock of the desert habitat.
Kidneys: Fennec foxes have special kidneys that are able to retain water.
Nocturnal lifestyle: Fennec foxes are nocturnal animals, meaning they are awake and active at dawn and at dusk. This allows them to live safely underground in their burrows during the hottest part of the day.
The deathstalker scorpion is a small, but highly dangerous desert animal. In fact, its venom is actually one of the most powerful amongst all scorpions. Just one still from this desert animal will seriously harm you and can, in some cases, even be fatal. Interestingly, however, this scorpion’s venom actually has a very positive use. The deathstalker’s venom can be used to locate tumours in the human body.
In terms of their physical appearance, deathstalker scorpions are around 6 cm in length and can appear in a variety of colours and markings. This is confusing as it makes them hard to identify.
You will find deathstalker scorpions in the deserts and scrubland of North Africa and Western Asia. In these areas, deathstalkers will feed on other arthropods, including other scorpions.
Camels are arguably the most famous desert animals in the world. You will find these animals in a variety of deserts around the world, where they have been living for around 4,000 years. As they are such a staple of the desert environment, camels have been put to work by the people living in those regions. For instance, camels are used for transport, food, and clothing.
What some people may not know is that there are 3 different types of camels: the single-humped dromedary, the two-humped Bactrian and Wild Bactrian.
The dromedary is probably the camel that we picture when we think of this desert animal as it is the most abundant type by a landslide. In fact, dromedaries represent 94% of all camels. Dromedary camels are largely domesticated animals. In Australia there is actually a small group of wild camel made up of the descendants of animals introduced to the country by humans.
Dromedary camels have a wide range of adaptations that equip them for living in desert environments:
Protection from sand storms: Dromedary camels have super thick, bushy eyebrows, double-layered eyelashes, and nostrils that can close completely to protect them from sand storms which are frequent occurrences in the desert.
Hump: The dromedary is also able to endure long periods of time without drinking any water, which is vital in a dry environment like the desert where water is sparse. It is able to do this because it stores both water and energy, in the form of body fat, in its hump.
Meerkats are another very famous type of desert animal. These small mammals belong to the mongoose family, Herpestidae and can be found in deserts, as well as some other dry habitats.
One of the most standout characteristics of meerkats is their sociability. Meerkats tend to live in groups, or colonies, of up to 50 members. Typically, the group will be active during the day and then lie low in their burrows at night. Community is very important to meerkats, as they are extremely sociable animals. It is even standard practice for meerkats to groom one another before leaving the burrow to forage. When they are foraging, the group works together, with certain meerkats adopting different roles to make sure all areas are covered.
Meerkats use a selection of unique calls to communicate with one another. These calls can range anywhere from small chirps to loud barks. Communication is vital for protecting the colony. For instance, whilst the colony is out foraging, certain meerkats will keep watch and put out an alarm call to alert the others to potential danger. This role of lookout is typically given to young male meerkats in the group, who position themselves on vantage points high up on termite mounds or at the top of bushes to get a good view of the area. In addition to letting the group know if danger is near, these meerkats will also make regular noises to reassure the group that there is no danger at present.
Whilst young males are the primary lookouts, every member of the group, including females, must take their turns stationed outside the colony on guard duty.
There are 6 species of flamingo, the largest of which is the greater flamingo. It is also just one of two species of flamingo that is found outside of the United States.
The greater flamingo tends to live in shallow lakes, lagoons, and estuaries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Whilst it does not live exclusively in the desert, the greater flamingo does frequently visit shallow lakes and flood plains in desert regions. For instance, every year, thousands of greater flamingos visit the Makgadikgadi Pan, in north-eastern Botswana, which is surrounded by the Kalahari Desert. They do this for breeding purposes.
In terms of their diet, greater flamingos eat brine shrimp, which are small aquatic crustaceans, molluscs, insects, small fish, and blue-green algae (plant-like organism that live on the surface of the water). Greater flamingos are also filter feeders, like whales. This means that they separate their food from the salty water they are feeding from using their specially-adapted bills.
To feed, the greater flamingo will lower its head and dip its bull upside down into the water. This allows its bill to fill up with water and mud, all the while using its tongue as a pump. The unique, crooked shape of the greater flamingo’s bill means that the gap between the top and bottom jaws stays roughly the same along the entire length of the bill. This stops any large objects from entering the flamingo’s mouth. After this, the greater flamingo will pump the contents of its mouth back out through the hairy plates in its bill. These hairy plates filter out the food from the mud and water. The remaining food then travels to the flamingo’s throat via backwards facing spines in the mouth and on the tongue.
Jerboas are the tiniest desert animals on this list. They are a group of rodents that belong to the Dipodidae family and can be found in deserts and other barren habitats in Northern Africa, Asia, and Australia.
Much like kangaroos, jerboas move by hopping, which they are able to do because of their long, powerful hind legs and short front limbs. What’s more, jerboas have super long tails, which enable them to keep their balance when hopping around or standing upright. Amazingly, some jerboas can actually hop more than ten times their own body length.
Jerboas have a number of adaptations that enable to live in the desert:
Sandy coat: The sandy colour of the Jerboas’ coat allows it to camouflage easily into its desert environment. This is particularly helpful for the Jerboas’ burrowing lifestyle.
Avoiding heat: Jerboases are only active either at twilight or night, which means that they can completely avoid the hottest hours of the day.
The golden hamster, which is also known as the Syrian hamster, is another rodent which can be found in the wilderness of Syria and Turkey. Whilst golden hamsters are actually popular pets in many parts of the world, the number of them still in the wild is rapidly decreasing. This is a massive cause for concern and, as such, they have been officially declared as having a ‘vulnerable’ conservation status.
Some other desert animals are:
The Addax Antelope - This antelope lives in the Sahara desert and has two long, winding horns on its head.
Armadillo Lizard - These lizards can be found in South African deserts. They live in the nooks and crannies of rocks in the desert. Just like the armadillo, they roll up into a ball when scared or threatened.
Kangaroo Rat - These rats are nocturnal and live in desert regions of the Southwest United States. They eat leaves, stems, and fruit if they’re lucky enough to find some.
Ostriches - These huge birds live in the open desert of Africa. They can reach up to 9 feet (2.74 m) in height!
Sidewinder Rattlesnake - The Sidewinder snake lives in various North American deserts. It has raised scales above its eyes which gives it the appearance of horns.
Aardvark - ‘Aardvark’ means ‘earth pig’ in Afrikaans. This mammal lives in the Sahara desert, and it’s nocturnal.