15 strange desert animals
Deserts are not easy places to call home. Broiling in the day, frigid at night, and lacking ample water, these landscapes test their inhabitants. The creatures that call deserts home have adaptations to help them survive and thrive in these harsh conditions. Many of these creatures never need to drink and have skin or scales that enable them to hoard what little water they require; some have evolved to move and be active solely at night to avoid the punishing sun. Here are 15 of the strangest animals found in deserts around the world.
Desert animals don't get much cuter than fennec foxes (Vulpes zerda). These teeny canids are smaller than domestic cats, measuring 14 to 16 inches (35.6 to 40.6 centimeters) long, not including their tails, but they sport enormous ears that can grow to be 4 to 6 inches (10.2 to 15.2 cm) long. These ears help the foxes shed heat and listen for prey under the sand. When the foxes catch the sound of rodents, insects or other small animals they predate, they use all four paws to dig out their quarry in a shower of sand, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Fennec foxes are well-adapted for life in African and Arabian deserts. Their pale fur camouflages them against the sand; it also grows on the bottoms of their feet to give them traction while running in the sand and protects their feet from the hot desert surface. When air temperatures rise, the foxes can pant up to 690 times per minute to cool down. Fennec foxes also dig elaborate burrows to escape the sun in the hottest part of the day.
Screaming hairy armadillo
Perhaps less cute than fennec foxes — but no less well-adapted to their desert environment — are screaming hairy armadillos (Chaetophractus vellerosus). These armadillos really do scream; when threatened, they make a terrible cry that sounds similar to the wails of a newborn human baby. Research published in 2019 suggests that these screams are designed to startle predators, or to attract other predators to the scene, perhaps distracting an attacker and enabling the armadillo to get away.
Screaming hairy armadillos are small, weighing only 1.9 pounds (0.86 kilograms). They live in the Monte desert of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, preferring spots with loose, sandy soil where they can dig burrows, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo. The armadillos rarely need to drink. Their kidneys are highly efficient, and they get most of the water they need from the plants they eat. It's a waste not, want not environment in the desert, so screaming hairy armadillos are opportunistic eaters — they also consume insects and small animals such as lizards and rodents.
Hairy desert scorpion
Among the many scorpion species that call deserts home, the hairy desert scorpion (Hadrurus arizonensis) is a standout. These sorpions can measure between 4 and 7 inches (10.2 to 17.8 cm) long, according to Utah's Hogle Zoo, making them North America's largest scorpions. Though they are a drab olive-green color, hairy desert scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet (UV) light. No one knows exactly why scorpions fluoresce, but the best way to find these shy nocturnal predators is to take a UV light into the desert on a summer night, when they tend to be most active.
Hairy desert scorpions are found in North America's Sonoran and Mojave deserts, as well as in Nevada and Utah. When looking to mate, male and female hairy desert scorpions lock pincers in a mating dance that looks more like a wrestling match. In fact, if the male does not flee quickly after depositing his sperm, he might find himself becoming his mate's next meal.
Females gestate their young for six to 12 months, live-birthing up to 35 babies that piggyback on their mother's carapace until they're large enough to hunt on their own. Fortunately for humans, desert hairy scorpions would rather flee than sting, and their venom is relatively weak. For most people, the sting is similar to a bee's sting.
Harris's hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus) are oddities in the falcon world. These impressive red-winged raptors sometimes hunt in packs, working together to pursue their prey around bushes, thickets and the saguaro cactuses of Arizona's Sonoran desert. The birds eat lizards, other birds and small desert mammals such as kangaroo rats and ground squirrels. When they catch large prey, they'll share the meat with their fellow hunters, according to the conservation nonprofit Audubon.
These birds also often work in groups to raise their young. Two males may mate with a single female, and the trio work together peacefully to raise any ensuing hatchlings. Hawk siblings help each other, too; an older brood from earlier in the season may stick around to bring food to younger broods.
Desert ironclad beetle
The desert ironclad beetle (Asbolus verrucosus) is a tank of an insect. Its powder-blue color comes from a waxy coating that helps the beetle retain moisture in the dry Sonoran desert. The bumps on the beetle's shell give it an armored appearance that is even tougher than it looks. The ironclad beetle subfamily is known for its ultra-strong exoskeleton — it’s so strong, these beetles can shrug off being stepped on by a human, according to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Desert ironclad beetles are also known as "death-feigning beetles" for their defensive behavior in the face of threats. When alarmed, the beetles roll over and play dead, according to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. They eat plants and decaying organic matter, and — like many desert denizens — rarely, if ever, need to drink.
A softer, fuzzier desert denizen is the desert sand cat (Felis margarita). It is the only cat species that makes its home in true desert environments. Desert sand cats are found in the Sahara desert, the Arabian Peninsula, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Though they look remarkably similar to fluffy domestic kitties, sand cats are elusive and rarely seen by people. They're secretive and difficult to track, according to the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) Canada. Researchers who tried to observe these animals in the wild found that the cats' fur-lined paws left no tracks, and their light-colored coats made them challenging to spot. What's more, the cats crouched low and closed their eyes against searchlights at night, hiding their reflective retinas.
Sand cats are stealthy hunters and are able to kill snakes as well as desert rodents and lizards. Their mating call sounds like a dog's bark.
Desert long-eared bat
Once dubbed "the hardest bat in the world," the desert long-eared bat (Otonycteris hemprichii) is found in North Africa and the Middle East. What earned this bat species that nickname? Well, its main diet is scorpions.
Desert long-eared bats hunt scorpions by falling onto them out of the sky and wrestling the venomous arachnids into submission. The bats are unbothered by the multiple scorpion stings they often receive in the process, according to research from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. Ben-Gurion University researchers also found that desert long-eared bats can switch the settings on their sonar, using one type of echolocation to seek out ground-dwelling prey like scorpions and another type to hunt down flying insects.
Colorful birds are often found in lush, tropical rainforests and are scarce in arid regions — except if that region happens to be in Australia’s interior. One of the continent's most beloved bird species is the pink cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri), which ekes out an existence in the semi-arid and arid Australian Outback.
Identifiable by its showy orange-and-yellow crest and its blush-shaded body, the pink cockatoo is divided into two subspecies: one found in western-central Australia and other in the east, according to the Australian Museum. These pretty birds live off seeds and insects. They mate for life, according to the Australian Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife (FNPW), and they can be found prancing on tree branches, bobbing their heads up and down to attract mates.
These iconic Australian birds have a variety of names and nicknames, according to FNPW. They're also known as Major Mitchell’s cockatoos (after the early English explorer who wrote about them for a global audience), as well as Leadbeater’s cockatoos, desert cockatoos, cocklerinas, chockalotts and — adorably — wee jugglers.
Perhaps nothing screams "desert" like the image of a sidewinder rattlesnake undulating over a sand dune, leaving behind bizarre curved tracks. Sidewinders (Crotalus cerastes) can slither at speeds of up to 18 mph (29 km/h) using their strange sideways crawl — even across loose sand, according to the Smithsonian Channel.
Sidewinders are ambush hunters. They bury themselves in sand, leaving only their eyes peeking upward. When a lizard happens by, they snap forward and spring the trap. These snakes strike in the blink of an eye, injecting venom that ]attacks both the blood and the nervous system of unwary prey.
Sidewinders are found in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. They can be recognized by the protruding horn-like structures shading their eyes, which may keep sand from obscuring their vision.
Fish in the desert? Desert pupfish (Cyprinodon macularis) are small, silvery fish that can survive remarkably well in parched conditions. Pupfish have evolved to thrive in water that flows through arid regions. They're found in California's Salton Sea and its tributaries, and in waterways along the lower Colorado River in Mexico.
These fish require a high degree of resiliency to survive in a desert's meager or brackish water sources. Special adaptations enable pupfish to survive despite conditions that would be deadly for most fish, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Pupfish can live in water ranging from fresh to 70 parts-per-thousand salt (most of the ocean is between 34 and 26 parts-per-thousand salt). They can live in water as cold as 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) and as hot as 108 degrees F (42.2 C). They can even live in water as poorly oxygenated as 0.1 parts-per-million (ppm) oxygen (most warm-water fish require 5 ppm oxygen in their water to survive, according to Florida's Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants).
Despite their toughness, desert pupfish are endangered in California, threatened by the introduction of non-native species and habitat loss.
No list of weird desert animals would be complete without a nod to lizard-kind. And no nod to lizard-kind would be complete without mentioning the thorny devil (Moloch horridus), the sole species in the genus Moloch, named for an ancient, sacrifice-demanding god worshipped by the Caanites and mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Thorny devils are only found in Australia. They grow to be just over 8 inches (21 cm) long from nose to tail and are covered with sharp spines that serve as a defense against predators.
Thorny devils also have two heads — really. One is a false head, a protuberance that sits on top of the devil's neck. When threatened, a thorny devil will lower its real head, presenting the false head as a decoy. Thorny devils also have a distinctive jerky walk that may confuse predators, according to Bush Heritage Australia.
As intimidating as thorny devils may look, they're really only a danger to ants, which they lap up by the thousands with their sticky tongues, according to Bush Heritage Australia. These desert denizens "drink" through their skin, collecting dew and moisture from sand with tiny channels between their scales. These straw-like channels, which direct the precious drops to the lizards’ mouths, are just one example of the creative hydration mechanisms that keep animals alive in the driest places on Earth.
Saharan silver ant
Saharan silver ants (Cataglyphis bombycina) get their name from their silky, silvery coats. Yes, these ants have hair.
Unlike most desert animals, Saharan silver ants forage in the middle of the day, when the Sahara can reach temperatures of up to 158 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius). This strategy helps them avoid predators but requires them to cool themselves very efficiently. A 2015 study in the journal Science found that the ants' silver hairs are shaped to help them reflect and radiate both sunlight and heat across the electromagnetic spectrum, keeping the insects cool.
Adorable elf owls (Micrathene whitneyi) are only the size of a sparrow, making them the world's smallest raptors, according to The Cornell Lab. Found in the southwestern United States and Mexico, these owls make their nests in old woodpecker holes in large saguaro cactuses or in trees. They avoid the desert heat during the day and instead use their incredible eyesight and hearing to hunt at night, pouncing on prey such as scorpions, insects and centipedes, according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Tarantula hawks aren't birds: They're a group of predatory wasps that prey on — you guessed it — tarantulas. These wasps are found around the world, but several species that dwell in the United States live in the desert southwest. Pepsis thisbe, for example, is a species of tarantula hawk that lives at the Grand Canyon. Wasps of this species have bright-orange wings and can grow up to 2 inches (5 cm) long, according to the National Park Service.
What really makes these wasps unique, though, is their habit of using tarantulas as living food for their larvae. Mother tarantula hawks paralyze tarantulas with their venom, carry them back to their nests and seal them in, laying their eggs in the spiders' abdomens. As the larvae grow, they feed on the paralyzed tarantulas, saving the vital organs for last.
Looking a bit like a cross between a shrew and a bunny, greater bilbies (Macrotis lagotis) are found in deserts and grasslands in Australia. These cute creatures are about the size of a housecat. They spend their days in tunnels that they dig out of the dry Australian soil, and they spend their nights foraging for food such as termites, tubers and grubs. Like many desert animals, bilbies get all the moisture they need from their food, according to Bush Heritage Australia.
Originally published April 12, 2022 and updated Jan. 27, 2023.