It’s no secret that we humans and our animal friends have no choice but to adapt to our planet’s changing climate system. As we face an increase in natural disasters and pollution, animals are, too. And we don’t just mean the polar bears living on melting icebergs: We’re also talking about desert animals.
While global warming is the long-term heating of the Earth’s surface, climate change represents changes in our fixed climate patterns. Both can happen naturally, but let’s face it: Global warming is one of the causes of climate change, and they’re both exacerbated by human activity. And when the planet experiences extreme changes in weather patterns—extreme storms, warmer ocean temperatures, wildfires, and more—the life living on it needs to adapt.
For centuries, wildlife has continuously (and impressively) adapted to environmental changes. Specifically, desert animals have adapted to survive extreme heat, a lack of water, and barren landscapes, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
If you’ve ever wondered how climate change is impacting desert animals, we’re here to answer your questions.
8 Adapting Desert Animals
1. Pronghorn Antelope
The pronghorn antelope, specifically Sonoran pronghorns, can be found in deserts and grasslands. They live throughout North America, with populations in northern Mexico, southwestern Arizona, and even southern Canada. And because they live in arid climates, Sonoran pronghorns have had to adapt to survive—but they’re still endangered, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
According to Animal Diversity Web (ADW), Sonoran pronghorns have gotten used to higher temperatures and intense exposure to solar radiation. And because they live in the desert, they’ve learned to live on a scarce water supply and balance hydration practices. Plus, they’re herbivores, so their diet consists of herbs, cacti, and desert grasses that other animals tend to stay away from.
However, Sonoran pronghorns are threatened by human activities, including the production of roadways, canals, fencing, and housing developments. These developments cause habitat fragmentation or displacement. Additionally, extended droughts caused by climate change is also negatively impacted Sonoran pronghorn species.
2. Fennec Fox
Fennec foxes live in sandy deserts and arid regions, specifically in northern Africa and the Sahara. And these creatures are known for their big ears that stand out against their tiny bodies. Plus, they have several desert adaptations!
These animals have fur-covered feet, heat-radiating ears, and pale fur that camouflages with the sand. And all of these adaptations keep them safe from predators and help them survive the desert heat. They also pant to help regulate their body temperature. Plus, their breathing rate can climb from 23 up to 690 breaths per minute!
Fortunately, these animals are listed as a “species of least concern,” meaning they’re not endangered, nor are they at risk to be any time soon.
3. Desert Bighorn Sheep
Next, we have the Desert Bighorn Sheep. You may have seen these animals if you’ve traveled to Utah, California, Nevada, or Arizona.
According to the National Park Service, these animals have developed adaptations to thrive in mountainous desert habitats. To climb up steep mountain ranges, they use their cloven hooves. They also have complex digestive systems which help them to absorb nutrients from their diet. This includes tough desert plants, like mesquite and catclaw.
However, there are a few threats to their survival, including development, habitat fragmentation, and climate change. These animals need a lot of water to survive (gallons at a time!)—but the increase in warm temperatures comes with droughts and a lack of water sources.
4. Kangaroo Rat
Kangaroo rats aren’t exactly kangaroos, nor are they rats. However, these small creatures are great at desert survival. Because of the heat and their small size, their bodies have developed adaptations that help reduce the amount of water needed and lost.
They mainly consume dry seeds and almost have no need for water. This is because they metabolize the water from the seeds that they eat, extracting up to half a gram of water from every gram of seed eaten. Plus, they don’t even need water to bathe—they just roll around in the sand! Their kidneys even produce concentrated, crystal-like urine to even further reduce the amount of water lost.
According to the IUCN Red List, kangaroo rats are endangered, and they’re predominantly threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation.
5. Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
The Western diamondback rattlesnake is a heavy-bodied snake with a triangular head, which can be found in the southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico.
These snakes are pit vipers, meaning that they have a heat-sensing pit behind each nostril. And these pits can detect even the slightest temperature differences—sometimes only a fraction of a degree apart. When the heat given off by an animal is detected, the snake can determine if it is a predator or prey.
And great news: These snakes currently aren’t threatened or endangered. However, research shows that these snakes have had to migrate north to escape extreme weather. And when venomous snakes migrate, the chances of snake and human interaction increase.
6. Sand Cat
Sand cats are desert dwellers and can only thrive in desert habitats. That means this species is a pro at adapting to desert environments. They have soft, dense coats, and their big eyes and tall, tapered ears help these creatures detect where prey is scarce.
Another desert adaptation sand cats have are the long, dense, hairs that cover the soles of their feet. These hairs provide insulation from the hot sands. Plus, their thick coat also insulates sand cats from the alternating high heat and colder temperatures of a desert environment.
However, according to the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC), sand cats are threatened by habitat loss—specifically as a result of human development.
While many of the camels living today are domesticated, just three species of living camels are well adapted for desert survival.
According to the National History Museum, camels are able to go long periods of time without drinking water—but not because of their humps. Despite popular belief, camel humps don’t store water. Instead, they store fat, which allows them to convert that fat into energy to survive.
And that’s not all a camel’s hump can do. It also helps these animals regulate their body temperature, meaning they can tolerate high temperatures. Cool, right?
Like a few other animals on this list, the IUCN Red List determined the domesticated Bactrian camel is endangered. Some camel species are endangered as a result of hunting for sport, but the Wild Camel Protection Foundation is working toward ensuring these animals are safe.
8. Cactus Wren
Lastly, cactus wrens are incredibly adaptable creatures. And they’re quite curious, too. They’ll explore possible new sources of food, eating mostly insects, spiders, and seeds. And they’re predominantly found in deserts and arid climates.
The male and female cactus wrens work together in their adaptations. Specifically, when females are watching their eggs, males are building new nests. And both are active in protecting their young.
While there are over 3 million cactus wren populations in the U.S., these populations are declining, particularly in Texas and southern California. They’re specifically threatened by drought, wildfires, and high temperatures. The good news is these birds aren’t currently listed as endangered.
What You Can Do
While not all of the animals on this list are endangered, they’re still affected by climate change, human activity, and more. And that means there’s always something we humans can do to help protect them.
In the simplest terms, you can adopt more eco-friendly living practices. That means prioritizing the planet, the environment, and wildlife in your day-to-day life. And this can look different for everyone.
For some people, prioritizing the planet can mean cutting back on waste, composting organic materials, and following recycling rules. For others, it can mean cutting back on travel emissions, respecting nature when on vacation or camping, and participating in community clean-ups.
And if you’re looking for ways to directly help your favorite animals, you can virtually adopt animals! Organizations like WWF have several opportunities for animal lovers to adopt online—and your donation goes toward conservation and restoration efforts.
Reporting by Mia McCallum