20 Amazing Animal Adaptations for Living in the Desert

iStock
iStock

As the summer temperatures continue to climb, you may find yourself spending more and more time indoors enjoying the comforts of central air conditioning. But without the benefit of modern technology, animals that make their home in the heat have had to come up with their own ways of staying cool and hydrated. We caught up with San Diego Zoo Ambassador and Zookeeper Rick Schwartz between television appearances in New York City to talk about the incredible ways that some creatures have adapted to survive in the desert.

1. The Thorny Devil Drinks with Its Skin.

Thinkstock

In the Australian Outback, pooled water can be extremely hard to come by. To deal with this issue, the thorny devil has developed skin that can absorb water like blotter paper (called “capillary action”). According to Schwartz, “the way the scales on the body are structured, it collects dew and channels it down to the corners of the mouth," where the lizard drinks it. You can actually watch the lizard’s skin darken as it soaks up whatever liquid remains from even the muckiest of puddles.

2. The African Pyxie Frog Can Hibernate in a Water-Soluble Mucus Sac for Years.

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Schwartz says it was previously believed that these animals died off during every dry season, but what was actually happening was far more interesting. When the rainy season ends on the African savannah, the second largest frog in the world burrows 6 to 8 inches underground and seals itself in a mucus membrane that “essentially hardens into a cocoon.” The frog can “hibernate” in this sac for up to seven years waiting for rain, which, when it comes, causes the mucus sac to soften, signaling to the frog that it’s time to wake up. The South African lungfish benefits from a similar method of hibernation.

3. “Sidewinding” May Look Funny, But It’s Actually Highly Efficient.

This unusual method of locomotion is used by two species of venomous snake—the Mojave Desert sidewinder in the southwestern United States and the Namib Desert viper in Africa. Not only does it help the serpents keep traction on shifting sands, but it ensures that only two points of the animals’ bodies are touching the hot ground at any given time.

4. The Chuckwalla Is the Puffer Fish of the Desert.

Wikimedia Commons

When facing a predator, this large lizard will scurry under a rock crevice and inflate the loose folds of skin along its body, making it difficult to pull from its hiding place—a perfect escape plan in the rocky deserts of the U.S. and northern Mexico that the chuckwalla calls home.

5. Big Ears Act Like Radiators.


The fennec fox of North Africa has large ears which Schwartz points out “serve a dual purpose”: they are great for listening for bugs to eat that may be moving around underground, but they are also loaded with blood vessels, allowing the animals to dissipate excess body heat. Schwartz points out that while big ears are wonderful radiators during hot days, the fox’s thick fur coat also acts as insulation during cold desert nights.

6. The Cape Ground Squirrel Takes Shade Everywhere It Goes.

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Native to the driest areas of southern Africa, this borrowing rodent can actually use its bushy tail as a sort of parasol—a function I think we all envy from time to time.

7. The Camel Is a Living Desert Adaptation.

Tambako the Jaguar 

No discussion of desert survival is complete without a mention of the camel. You know that the hump stores fat, which can be used as both a food and water source for the animal when the going gets tough. But Schwartz points out that camels also have thick hairs in their ears for keeping out sand, and the same can be said of their eyelashes—“there’s not a model out there that wouldn’t want eyelashes like that,” Schwartz says. Camels also sport closable nostrils, a nictitating eye membrane, and wide feet that act like snowshoes in the sand.

8. Camels Aren’t the Only Animals That Store Fat for Desert Survival.

Greg Goebel

The Gila Monster—one of only two venomous lizards in the world—spends most of its life underground and can go months between meals by living off of fat stored in its tail. This is a handy little survival trick during the dry season in their Sonoran Desert habitat.

9. Can’t Find Food? Toughen Up!

Tanya Durrant

The peccary, or javelina, has a tough mouth and specialized digestive system which enables it to chomp down on prickly pear cactus pads (one of their favorite foods) without feeling the effects of the plant’s thousands of tiny spines. “I can’t imagine biting into the paddle of a cactus, but these animals definitely have found ways to do that,” Schwartz says. As an added bonus, using cactus as a food source is a great way to supplement water intake as the spiny succulents are absolutely loaded with the stuff.

10. The Sand Grouse Can Carry Water In Its Feathers.

Wikimedia Commons

This bird, found mainly in the deserts of Asia and North Africa, has specialized feathers on its belly that are able to soak up small quantities of water. Males of the species will use these feathers like a sponge to carry water back to their nests, which they then share with their female counterparts and offspring.

11. The Dorcas Gazelle Never Has to Drink Water or Urinate.

Marie Hale

Though they will drink water when it is available, this small species of North African antelope can get all of the water it needs from the food in its diet. When water is unavailable, the Dorcas gazelle can concentrate its urine into uric acid, which Schwartz describes as “a white pellet” instead of the hydraulically expensive liquid waste. “That’s water conservation,” he says, “and they need to hold on to whatever they get.”

12. The Fogstand Beetle Drinks Dew Drops.

The Namib Desert in Africa has very little fresh water to speak of, but due to its proximity to the sea, it receives a daily dose of fog in the cool hours of the early morning. Fogstand beetles have learned to stand still in order to let the fog condense on their bodies in the form of water droplets, which they then drink.

13. The Roadrunner “Cries Out” Excess Salt

Linda Tanner

As Schwartz points out, the metabolic processes of the body all have outputs which often occur in the form of mineral build up. “Animals that live in an environment where water is readily available will just [get rid of those minerals] through their urine,” he says. “When you have animals that live in these extreme environments where they don’t want to excrete any fluids, the body will find other ways to get rid of those minerals.” The greater roadrunner of North America, which like the Dorcas gazelle can survive its whole life without drinking water, has developed a unique way of dealing with this problem: it secretes excess salt from a gland near its eye.

14. Delicate Skin Keeps the African Spiny Mouse Protected.

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Not only are these animals able to close any wounds through a special process of contraction, but the exceptionally weak skin of these mice means it is also much easier to regenerate, allowing wounded spiny mice to heal from superficial wounds much faster than other species—a process which minimizes blood loss.

15. The Blind Skink Stays Under the Sand.

Buckham Birding

With subspecies in Africa, Asia, and Australia, this freaky legless lizard has developed an ingenious method of dealing with high desert surface temperatures—simply staying out of them. Blind skinks have lost their legs and eyes through evolution and, like the sandworms from Beetlejuice, prefer to stay hidden underground where they can tunnel in search of creepy crawlies to munch on.

16. Scorpions Can Slow Their Metabolic Rate, Allowing Them to “Hibernate” While Awake.

Matt Reinbold

Scorpions are able to go up to a year without eating thanks to their specialized metabolisms. Unlike other animals that experience a seasonal hibernation, though, a scorpion is still able to react to the presence of prey with lightning quickness even while in this state of nearly suspended animation.

17. Kangaroos Cool Themselves With Spit Baths.

Josh Berglund

To survive the harsh Australian summers, kangaroos will cool off by licking their forelegs. A special network of blood vessels in the legs allows the animals to reduce their body temperatures quickly through the evaporation of saliva since kangaroos lack regular sweat glands.

18. Meerkats Are Always Game-Ready.

Marieke IJsendoorn-Kuijpers

The black circles around the eyes of these social African mammals is often compared to a natural pair of sunglasses, though Schwartz says that the pattern actually functions by “absorbing the sun and preventing it from reflecting back into the eyes.” This means that the pattern works more like the eye black used by professional athletes than actual lenses. Still, says Schwartz, it allows them “to see more clearly” while awake during the day, compared to nocturnal predators such as lions, whose eyes have no special markings whatsoever.

19. The Addax Antelope Changes Color With the Seasons.

Susan E Adams

Another creature native to the Sahara Desert, the Addax antelope rarely if ever needs to drink water to survive. To cope with the unforgiving desert sun, the Addax sports a white coat in the summer which reflects sunlight, but in the winter the coat turns brownish-gray so as to better absorb heat.

20. The Common Kingsnake Is Immune to Rattlesnake Venom.

M Dolly

What better way is there to silence your competition than by eating them? The common kingsnake is so specialized to that end that not only do they hunt by clamping down on a snake’s jaws before constricting it to death, they have also developed an immunity to rattlesnake venom, making the vipers one of their favorite food sources.

5 Ways You Can Help the Jaguar Rescue Center Save Costa Rica’s Wildlife

A curious sloth says hello after members of the Jaguar Rescue Center reunited her with her baby.
A curious sloth says hello after members of the Jaguar Rescue Center reunited her with her baby.
Jaguar Rescue Center

In 2005, Catalonian primatologist Encar Garcia and her husband, Italian herpetologist Sandro Alviani, were living in southwestern Costa Rica when locals began to bring them injured animals in hopes that the two experts could save them. As word spread and more animals arrived, their property slowly transformed into a full-fledged rescue center. So they purchased the surrounding land and named their new organization the Jaguar Rescue Center (JRC), after one of their early rescues: a young, orphaned jaguar whose mother had been killed by farmers.

Today, the center covers nearly 5.5 acres of land near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Costa Rica’s Limón province. It can accommodate around 160 animals at a time, and is home to everything from spider monkeys to sea turtles (though, by law, staff members aren’t allowed to accept domesticated animals like cats and dogs).

While locals still bring injured and orphaned animals to the JRC, others are brought by tourists, the Ministry of Environment and Energy, the National Animal Health Service, and even the police, who confiscate animals that have been poached or illegally kept as pets.

howler monkey at jaguar rescue center
Skye, a young howler monkey who recovered from electrocution.
Jaguar Rescue Center

The rescues are often victims of road accidents, animal attacks, environmental destruction, human interaction, or electrocution from exposed power lines. After the animals are rehabilitated, they’re released into La Ceiba Natural Reserve, a human-free (except for JRC workers) part of the forest where they can safely reacclimate to living in the wild. The JRC has cameras installed in the area to monitor the animals after their release and make sure they’re finding enough food.

Unfortunately, not all the creatures brought to the JRC recover from their injuries—in 2019, for example, 311 of the 749 rescues died [PDF]—so JRC staff members and volunteers understand just how remarkable it is to watch an animal regain its health and be successfully returned to its natural environment.

“There are so many amazing things about working for the JRC, but I think we all can agree that seeing a rescued animal make it through rehabilitation and be released is the best and most rewarding part of the job,” Torey, a JRC tour guide, tells Mental Floss.

Some thought-to-be-orphaned sloths are even released right back into the arms of their mothers. After recording the cries of a baby sloth, JRC staff will take the sloth back to wherever it was first found, play the recording, and wait for the mother to recognize the cries and (slowly) climb down from her leafy abode to reunite with her child.

Despite its partnerships with government agencies, the JRC doesn’t receive government funding. Instead, it relies on public donations and revenue from its visitor services. Find out more about how you can help below.

1. Donate money.

You can make a one-time or monthly donation that will go toward food, medical care, and supplies for the animals, or you can donate specifically to the JRC’s “Shock Free Zone” program, which insulates power lines and transformers that run through forests to prevent them from electrocuting wildlife.

2. Donate items.

Check out the JRC’s Amazon wish list to see which items are most needed—and what they’ll be used for, too. Examples include Pampers diapers for baby monkeys, snake hooks for safely rescuing snakes, and cans of worms to feed birds, opossums, and bats.

One of the most important products on the list is powdered goat’s milk, which staff members use to feed orphans of many mammalian species at the JRC.

“It has the most universally digestible enzyme compared to other milk,” Torey says. “Unfortunately, we do not have sloth milk, monkey milk, etc. readily available for the baby animals.”

3. “Adopt” an animal.

diavolino, a margay at the jaguar rescue center
Diavolino, the Jaguar Rescue Center's "feisty little margay."
Jaguar Rescue Center

For $105, you can virtually “adopt” an animal at the JRC. Choices range from Diavolino, a “feisty little margay” rescued from the illegal pet trade, to Floqui, a whitish two-fingered sloth who was born with only one digit on each hand and foot.

4. Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center.

You can stay overnight at the JRC in one of its three visitor residences—La Ceiba House, Ilán Ilán House, or one of the Jaguar Inn bungalows—which offer a variety of amenities, restaurant service, and access to nearby beaches.

Whether or not you’re staying there, you can book a tour of the JRC, where you’ll get to explore the premises and even meet some of the animals. There are private, public, nighttime, and VIP tours, and you can find out more here.

5. Volunteer at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

If you’re looking for a more hands-on, potentially life-changing way to help Costa Rica’s wildlife, you can apply for the JRC’s four-week volunteer program or a position at La Ceiba Natural Reserve that lasts three to six months.

According to the website, JRC volunteers are housed in the Jaguar Inn and help with “a broad range of tasks, from doing the dishes and cleaning up after the animals ... to building and remodeling enclosures, or babysitting a new arrival to ease the stress of their new environment.”

La Ceiba volunteers, on the other hand, stay right on the reserve and do everything from monitoring captive and recently released animals to keeping the trails clear.

Find out more about becoming a volunteer here.

YouTube Star Coyote Peterson Brings 'Misunderstood' Animals to His New Animal Planet Series

Animal Planet
Animal Planet

As host of the popular YouTube series Brave Wilderness, Coyote Peterson is no stranger to going face-to-face with creatures many deem terrifying—think great white sharks and pit vipers—but that he says are simply "misunderstood."

Animals have always been a big part of Peterson's life, even before he made a career out of being stung and bitten by ferocious critters. The Ohio native studied video production and directing at Ohio State University, and then decided to combine his two passions—film and all things wild—to teach viewers about wildlife and the importance of conservation. His YouTube channel currently has more than 15 million subscribers.

Now Peterson is embarking on a new adventure with Animal Planet in the show Brave the Wild. He'll travel all over the world with wildlife biologist Mario Aldecoa and his crew, sharing creatures that aren't often in the spotlight and that viewers may find a little frightening. He recently chatted with Mental Floss about the importance of conservation, his thing for snapping turtles, and his close encounter with a jaguar and her three cubs.

You’ve said your love of animals started with snapping turtles. Can you talk about the first time you saw one and what about them fascinated you so much?

The first snapping turtle I caught was when I was only 8 years old. I was always fascinated with turtles, because at first glance they look prehistoric, almost dinosaur-like. Growing up in Ohio, I never got to see any "exotic" animals. My favorite thing to watch on TV was Steve Irwin. Watching him wrestle crocs is what inspired me to catch my first snapping turtle, the most dangerous animal Ohio has to offer.

Coyote Peterson with a gigantic snapping turtle
Animal Planet

In Brave the Wild, you introduce animals that are often feared or misunderstood. What's the importance in exposing viewers to these creatures?

One of my goals through this series was to inspire people to overcome their fears of these seemingly dangerous animals and learn to admire them from a safe distance. The more you understand these creatures, the less you are afraid of them. One of the messages I try to convey in every episode is the importance of conservation.

What’s the most "misunderstood" creature you've encountered?

The most misunderstood creature that comes to mind is the carpet shark, which we filmed in season one. As I always say, people’s biggest fears are the three S’s (sharks, snakes and spiders). The carpet shark is found off the coast of Australia. They only bite humans in the case of mistaken identity. To some of these sharks a person’s foot might look like a fish. Any time you enter a new environment you need to be aware of what you need to look for, not only to keep yourself safe, but the animal as well.

What goes into preparing for each encounter to make sure you and the animals come out alive?

With any new expedition, you need to come into the environment knowing exactly what to expect. When encountering a new animal, I try to stay as calm as I can and have no hesitation. If I stay calm, the animal stays calm, [and] I'm creating a safer interaction for myself. I use different tactics when I encounter different animals. It also depends on whether the environment is land or in water.

How do you keep your composure on camera when you're in a potentially dangerous situation?

Any situation I find myself in, I look at it as my job. For example, I would be afraid operating a crane, because that is something I don't do. If it's part of your job, it's something that you get used to. When I do my job, I make sure I'm focused and never hesitate. Before I encounter any animal, I know what I'm going to say to the camera. I say that, for the best show, we always need to have the camera rolling so the audience can see what is happening.

Coyote Peterson with a kangaroo
Animal Planet

You were in Australia filming Brave the Wild during bushfire season. What was that like?

Visiting Australia was one of the best experiences I had filming the show. Australia is a fascinating country that has so many unique environments. We spent over 50 days in Australia and encountered more than 35 different species. We were there right before all these devastating fires started, and we got to witness the severity of the drought and all the different animals it impacted.

What was your favorite animal encounter in upcoming series?

Each encounter I have in the wild is special. I would have to say that the most exciting moment for me was when we were filming in Brazil and I saw a jaguar and three of her cubs up close. Not only did I get to see this in real life, but my amazing team was able to capture this special moment on tape. It is just so amazing seeing these animals survive and thrive in the wild while dealing with not only the dangers of the wild but human encroachment as well. Hands down, this was my favorite episode that we got to film.

Catch new episodes of Brave the Wild on Animal Planet, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

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