How Animal Survive in the Desert

The Desert Food Chain Part 4

Like the plants, called “producers,” the animals, called “consumers,” have developed elaborate means for surviving the prolonged droughts and high temperatures of our Southwestern deserts. 


Regarding the plants, you may recall, for a few examples, that the cacti, yuccas and agaves have developed specialized stem or leaf structures that store the water necessary to see them through drought and heat.  Some shrubs become dormant, effectively “go to sleep,” shedding water-using leaves and stems to reduce requirements for moisture during periods of drought and heat.  Other plants – for instance, California Poppies, Indian Paintbrushes or Bluebonnets – draw from large seed banks only when conditions are ideal, living their lives and producing new seeds swiftly, avoiding the desert’s full measure of drought and heat.

By comparison, the animals – mobile organisms that have more specialized tissue structures but less heat tolerance than plants – have developed their own sets of strategies for acquiring and conserving their water supplies and avoiding or escaping drought and heat. 

 Video available on this subject.Video on how the Desert Food Chain worksVideo available on this subject.

Acquiring and Managing Water

Obviously, animals capitalize on the water freely available in the Southwest’s few continuously flowing river systems and temporary drainages and ponds.  Indeed, the animals and plants that live along stream banks and marshes, or “riparian” environments, comprise the most abundant and diverse biological communities in our desert basins.  The animals that live in the vast desert areas between the river systems, however, must look to other sources for water. 


Some acquire water from the organisms they eat. 

You might find, for instance, the large, metallic green scarab called the “Green Fruit Beetle,” a native of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts, feeding on the prickly pear cacti’s juicy fruits, a source of moisture as well as nutrition. In a scene out of a horror movie, the Tarantula Wasp ambushes its spider prey near its burrow.  It stings the tarantula, paralyzing rather than killing it.  It drags the still-living but now immobile spider home, stuffing it into the earthen hole.  It lays its eggs on the spider’s body.  When the eggs hatch, the wasp’s larvae feed on the paralyzed and helpless tarantula, taking their moisture and nutrition from the creature’s tissue. 

The Desert Tortoise, a reptile, takes most of its moisture from its foods, which include, for instance,  grasses, wildflowers and cacti, according to Petra Speiss in a publication called The Vivarium, Vol. 8 No. 3.  (A “vivarium” is an enclosure with a naturalized environment for raising a wild creature.)


The Western Rattlesnake, in the desert, absorbs most of its water from its prey, usually small mammals and birds, which it swallows whole.  In the course of a year, the rattler will take in an amount of water roughly equivalent to its body weight. 

The hummingbird takes water and calories from the nectar of flowers.  With a heart that throbs at a rate of more than a 1000 times a minute and wings that whir at a rate of 80 beats a second, the hummer uses so much energy that it must visit 1000 flowers a day to get the nectar it needs to survive.   

The Desert Martin, or Purple Martin, a migratory bird that arrives in the Sonoran Desert from South America in late spring and nests in the towering Saguaro Cactus, gets moisture for itself and its young birds from insect prey.   

The Roadrunner, depicted as a silly cuckoo in a cartoon but actually a creature superbly adapted to the desert, takes its water and nutrition from diverse prey—scorpions, reptiles (including rattlesnakes), small rodents and other birds. 


The Turkey Vulture, a desert scavenger with a wing span of six feet, takes much of its moisture from the dead animal carcasses, or carrion.  According to eight-year-old Katelyn Martin in her poem “The Road Kill Grill,” published in DesertUSA, “Dead meat in the heat for the turkey vulture is a treat.”

While bats, our only winged mammal, usually skim streams or ponds for water, some desert species rely only on insect prey for the moisture they need.  Other desert species, for instance, the Long-nose Bat of the desert grass- and shrublands of south-central Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, gets its required moisture from the blooms of Saguaro and Organ Pipe cacti and agaves and, after the flowering season, from the ripe fruit of the cacti. 

The Rock Squirrel, which lives in the rocky arroyos and hills of the northern Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, gets water from grasses, juicy vegetation and plant bulbs.  It may not even bother to take water should it be available from nearby ponds and streams. 

The tough-snouted, pig-like Collared Peccary, often traveling with a gang of dozens of its kin, gets water from the plants of its diverse diet, a thorny feast that includes the various prickly pears, the Sotol and the wicked Lechuguilla agave.

The wonderfully agile Bighorn Sheep, among the heartiest of the larger mammals of the desert, also gets water from its widely varied diet, which includes plants such as Mountain Mahogany, the prickly pear cacti and various yuccas and agaves. 

While many desert animals meet their water needs from their diet, others have bodies especially adapted for managing water.   For instance, a beetle has hard shell, or external skeleton, that encases its body and reduces moisture loss.  A reptile has a scaly skin that helps retain moisture.  The Gila Monster, which can eat as much as 100 percent of its body weight, can store enough water in its body to last through the winter.  The Roadrunner can reabsorb water from its own waste.  The Turkey Vulture has very powerful kidneys that allow the bird to dispose of its body waste as solid matter while conserving water.  The Desert Kangaroo Rat can convert dry seed matter into water during the process of digestion, and it has kidneys designed to dispose of waste while conserving water.

Avoiding and Managing Heat Exposure

The animals have developed another range of strategies for dealing with the searing heat, which may reach air temperatures of well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and soil temperatures of well over 150 degrees. 


Many animals take refuge in their relatively cool burrows, well beneath the hot surface, during the day, coming out at night to hunt or forage.  For instance, Arizona’s Hairy Scorpion, which can grow up to six inches in length, digs burrows as much as eight feet deep to escape the heat.  The Gila Monster, which must maintain a body temperature in the range of 85 degrees, spends much of the summer days in a cool earthen burrow, one probably liberated from a Packrat.  The Burrowing Owl and the Black-throated Sparrow appropriate rodent burrows to get relief from the desert sun.  Various mammals, from rodents like the Desert Kangaroo Rat to larger animals like the skunks and foxes dig burrows that serve as retreats from the heat of summer days.  Some animals, for instance, various ground squirrels, spend most of the summer in their burrows, living underground for virtually the entire season of heat.

Various other animals simply seek out the relative coolness of whatever shade they can find in the desert.  Some birds cool themselves by panting to cause the water in their throats and mouths to evaporate, carrying heat away from their bodies and into the air.  A Turkey Vulture expels waste onto its own legs, depending on the evaporation of the moisture to carry away body heat.  Some birds migrate to cooler regions or retreat to mountain elevations to avoid the summer heat.  The Mule Deer, the Collared Peccary and other animals may move to higher and cooler country.  The Desert Bighorn Sheep may seek the coolness, not of burrows, but of caves in the mountain foothills during the heat of summer.


Numerous desert animals have bodies especially adapted to withstand heat.  Birds often have light-colored plumage and animals, light-colored coats, which tend to reflect rather than absorb heat.  Others have few sweat glands so they can avoid losing water by perspiration   The Roadrunner has the ability to lower its body temperature and save energy on a hot desert day.  The Black-tailed Jackrabbit has very large ears that disperse the animal’s body heat into the desert air. 


Then Comes the Night

After spending the day in refuge from the summer heat, the animals begin to emerge as the sun descends in the west and the air and soil temperatures begin to fall.  Moths show up to begin their business of pollinating night-blooming plants.  The Wolf Spider climbs from his burrow to scout his territory and begin his hunt.  The rattlesnakes and the Gila Monster start their evening rounds.  The hummingbirds intensify their search for nectar and small insects.  The mammals begin their business.  Often, in the darkness, the coyotes yip excitedly, sending a thrill through you as they close in on a Black-tail Jackrabbit or a Desert Cottontail.  It is nighttime when the desert comes to life.

by Jay W. Sharp

How do green plants manufacture their own food?
How desert plants survive?
The Arithmetic of the Food Chain
How scientists classify plants and animals

Desert Animals
Desert Plants




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The Saguaro Video
The Saguaro often begins life in the shelter of a "nurse" tree or shrub which can provide a shaded, moister habitat for the germination of life. The Saguaro grows very slowly -- perhaps an inch a year -- but to a great height, 15 to 50 feet.

The Desert Food ChainDesert Food Chain Video
A food chain constitutes a complex network of organisms, from plants to animals, through which energy, derived from the sun, flows in the form of organic matter and dissipates in the form of waste heat.

Prickly pear cactus Video
Prickly pear cactus are found in all of the deserts of the American Southwest. Most prickly pears have large spines on their stems and vary in height from less than a foot to 6 or 7 feet.

Hot temperatures in the desertAre you interested in the temperatures in the desert?

Click here to see current desert temperatures!

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