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Deserts

Deserts are habitats that get very little rain. Plants and animals that live in deserts are adapted to live in dry conditions.

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Most deserts get very hot during the day, but they can get cold at night or in the winters. Some deserts are actually cold all year round, like Antarctica, which is the world's largest desert. Even though it is covered in snow and ice, it is very dry and almost never rains or snows.

Because deserts get so little rain, life can be harsh for the plants and animals that live there. It may look like nothing lives there, but deserts are full of life if you look closely.

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How many different animal prints can you spot here?

Keeping cool

The hot deserts can get over 100°F during the day, so to beat the heat, many animals go underground or hide in the shade during the day. Once the sun goes down, these animals come out to hunt for food. 

Fennec foxes and jackrabbits have large ears which help them cool down. Their blood vessels run through the ears and let off body heat.

 

Finding water
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To adapt the the lack of water, some animals get all the water they need from the food they eat. For instance, kangaroo rats get all their water from the seeds they eat. Darkling beetles have a different strategy. They get water by drinking the dew that condenses on their bodies.

 

Camels are famously able to store water. They can go for a week without drinking water because it is stored in their body. It is not stored in their hump though, that is made of fat. When they cannot find food, their body uses the fat in their hump.

Plants

Plants have unique adaptations as well. Cactus plants store water in their stems so they can survive periods of drought. Instead of growing leaves, they grow spines, which help reduce water loss and protect the cactus from being eaten by herbivores (plant eating animals). Spines also condense mist and fog, and the water droplets fall to the base of the cactus where the roots can absorb it. The roots spread out wide so they can collect more water. When it rains, they can quickly grow extra root hairs to absorb more water, and those hairs die once the rain has gone.

Some plants shed their leaves during dry periods and will grow only after a good rain. When these plants do have leaves, they are coated with a waxy surface to prevent water loss. Other plants only live for a few months, produce seeds, and die before the harsh weather returns.

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Desert animals:
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Road runner: 

These birds live in deserts in North & Central America. They are awkward flyers, and prefer to run on the ground. They are quick, running up to 15 miles per hour, and use their long tail to steer and brake. Road runners are carnivores and eat snakes, scorpions, lizards, frogs, mice, and insects. They get all the water they need from the animals they eat.

Jerboa:

These are long tailed rodents found in the deserts of Northern Africa, Asia, and Arabia. They can jump up to 10 feet when alarmed or moving quickly. During the day they rest in burrows, which they seal off with soil to keep the heat out. They make multiple burrows- short temporary burrows to hide from the heat, and more elaborate burrows with chambers for nesting or hibernating.

Meerkat:

These little mongooses live in African deserts. They live in packs of several families, and utilize several burrows with rooms connected by tunnels. They are very vigilant of predators and when a sentry spots one, will warn the others to retreat to the burrow. Meerkats eat fruit, insects, lizards, and birds. When hunting small game, they work together as a group.

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Desert horned lizard:

These lizards have flat bodies and a crown of horns along the head and spines along the body. Horned lizards have an adaptation for water collection: when it rains, there are channels between its spiny scales that direct the water to their open mouth. These lizards have great coloring to help them camouflage in the North & Central American deserts where they live. To defend themselves against predators they inflate themselves up to look like a spiky balloon. As a second defense, they have the unusual ability to shoot blood out of their eyes. 

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Fennec fox:

Fennec foxes live in North African and Asian deserts. They are quite small - between 1.5 and 3.5 pounds. These foxes have large ears which radiate heat to keep them cool. Their feet are hairy which protect them from the heat of the sand. They live in underground dens in small communities of other foxes. Unfortunately their cute appearance makes them targets for the exotic pet trade and they are also targeted for their fur coats.

Threats to the Desert:

With climate change, deserts are getting even less water. As they become drier, they experience dust storms, soil erosion, and a reduction of biodiversity (amount of life).

Deserts contain oil and many minerals and metals. Drilling for oil and mining for things like salt, gold, and sand damage the desert environment. Letting livestock, like cows, graze in deserts pulls the sparse resources (like water) away from the native plants and animals that need them.

It's important to remember that even though there doesn't look like much is living in a desert, it is actually home to a lot of life. Protecting deserts from damaging activities will help preserve this habitat.

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