When basic needs such as food, water and shelter need to be met, animals must learn to adapt to their environment. Environments with consistently high temperatures can be harsh, even for well-adapted animals. To meet their needs and survive in such environments, animals evolved specific physical and behavioral traits.
To survive extreme temperatures, animals adapted to behave in ways that protect their bodies. For example, sand snakes move across hot sand by side-winding, a lateral movement made by performing a sine-wave motion where minimal parts of the body hit the ground. To minimize contact with the hot ground, many lizards either run quickly on all fours or run on their back legs. African ground squirrels depend on their bushy tails to shade them while they search for food.
To survive unforgiving temperatures, anatomical adaptations are essential for many species of animals. For example, ostriches adapted to not grow feathers on their abdomen, legs, neck and head. This allows heat to easily escape. Instead, they only grow feathers on the large part of their backs to block the sunlight from their skin. Desert hares like jackrabbits adapted to high temperatures with their long ears and numerous blood vessels, which are effective at releasing heat when they relax in the shade.
Some of the most important physiological adaptations for animals living in high temperature habitats are the abilities to obtain and retain water. Desert rodents, such as kangaroo rats, obtain all of the water they need by eating dry seeds. This is possible due to their metabolic ability to efficiently retain water and produce extremely concentrated urine and feces. Desert amphibians absorb water through their skin by hiding in humid burrows when temperatures are at their peak.
Estivation and Nocturnal Animals
Animals such as the desert tortoise prefer to sleep in their refreshing burrows when temperatures are at their warmest. During the early morning and late afternoon when temperatures cool down, the tortoise is active -- a behavior known as estivation that enables the tortoise to retain energy and water. Some species of bats, owls, snakes, rodents and foxes are nocturnal. They sleep during the day in their burrows and are active at night to hunt or forage.
- Pima Community College: Plant and Animal Adaptations to the Desert
- United Nations Environment Programme: Adaptations of Animals to Aridity
- DesertUSA: Desert Animal Survival
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: The Desert Adaptations of Birds and Mammals
- San Diego Zoo: Desert Tortoise
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: Sonoran Desert Seek and Find
- Photodisc/Digital Vision/Getty Images