The Living World
21 Topics | 21 Quizzes

The Biodiversity of Hot Deserts

Hot deserts often give the impression of being vast, lifeless lands where most creatures are unable to live. Although these biomes aren’t as diverse as rainforests, there are still many species of animals and plants that call the difficult terrain home. Hot desert biomes can look very different across the world, with a variety of organisms depending on their geographical location.

Deserts can be home to organisms such as:

  • Cacti
  • Scorpions
  • Camels
  • Iguanas
  • Lizards
  • Sheep
  • Antelope
  • Coyotes
  • Rabbits
  • Hedgehogs
  • Foxes
  • Snakes

Both flora and fauna adapt, developing distinct characteristics that allow them to flourish in such an extreme environment.


Plants that can thrive in hot, dry environments are called xerophytes, and these species share some or many adaptations that help them survive. Many examples of such plants are found in the cactus family, with others including gymnosperm plants and pineapples. 

Here are some examples of adaptations that make survival in the desert possible for plants:

  • Tap Roots – Long roots that reach underground to access water supplies, stored in aquifers, to help the plant avoid relying on precipitation.
  • Small Leaves – Smaller leaves mean that less water is lost through transpiration
  • Thick Stems – Greater volume for storing water, especially useful during summer.
  • Spines – Plants such as cacti have spines instead of leaves. The spines lose less water than leaves and act as a defence against animals that might eat the plant.
  • Shallow Roots – In a method opposing tap roots, some plants have shallow roots that spread out to catch surface water when it rains.
  • Thick, waxy skin – Many plants develop a waxy skin that prevents transpiration, helping them to retain water.

Animals adapt in various ways, depending on their diet and place within the ecosystem’s food web. Here are a few specific examples of adaptations that animals have undergone to survive in the hot desert ecosystem:

  • Camels – They have expertly adapted to the desert in several ways.
    • Camels have two sets of eyelashes and nostrils, which close to keep sand out of their eyes and nose
    • Their toes are wide apart, helping them displace their weight, preventing them from sinking into the sand
    • Camels’ humps are designed to store fat, helping them last a long time without food or water
  • Nocturnal Activity – Many animals have adapted to being active at night instead of during the day. Hunting in the extreme 40-50 degree heat is exhausting, and prey capture is not guaranteed. Desert rodents, fennec foxes, skunks, and mountain lions, among others, become active when the sun sets.
  • Reptiles – Snakes and lizards have waterproof skin, minimising water loss.
  • Kangaroo Rat – Kangaroo rats live in burrows to escape the daytime heat. They have also developed large back legs that can spring up to 3 metres instantly, allowing them to quickly avoid predators.

All organisms within a hot desert ecosystem are linked. The system functions through interdependency, a concept crucial to understanding how ecosystems function. To read about hot desert interdependency, click here.

Key Terms

AdaptationA characteristic of an organism’s body that helps it to survive in a specific environment.
AquiferAn underground layer of permeable rock that holds and transmits water.
TranspirationThe loss of water from plant leaves by evaporation.
Food WebA network of interlocking and interdependent food chains illustrating how different species are connected through their feeding relationships and the flow of energy.

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