Desert dwellers

Published 11 Dec 2018 

There’s a common misconception that deserts are bleak places, devoid of life, but in truth the arid Outback is home to a huge diversity of plants and animals.

Our desert species have evolved some spectacular adaptations that allow them to persist through sweltering days in summer, freezing nights in winter, and months or years without rain. When the rain comes, the sudden downpours are capable of transforming a landscape in a matter of hours.

1 Thorny Devils

Thorny Devil. Photo A.J Emmott.
Thorny Devil. Photo A.J Emmott.
No species better embodies the saying ‘flat out like a lizard drinking’ than the Thorny Devil. When these reptiles encounter early morning dew – usually on the ground or on vegetation – they press their bodies up against it and allow the moisture to be sucked up by capillary action through tiny channels between their scales. These channels interconnect and eventually funnel the water into the lizard’s mouth. They also have two penises, but that’s a story for another day... More on Thorny Devils

2 Sturt’s Desert Pea

Sturt's Desert Pea. Photo Lindsay Hunt.
Sturt's Desert Pea. Photo Lindsay Hunt.
The Sturt’s Desert Pea is South Australia’s floral emblem, but it's found across most of arid Australia. These blood red beauties are ephemeral, meaning they have short but productive lives brought about by heavy rains. Their seeds can survive long periods of drought, and will only begin to germinate after heavy rain. Seedlings develop what’s called a ‘tap root’ – a long root that can access water deep underground. The plants germinate, grow and set seed very quickly before the soil dries out again. Ephemeral plants are the main reason why deserts undergo such dramatic transformations after heavy rains.

3 Burrowing frogs

Burrowing Frog. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
Burrowing Frog. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
Australia’s burrowing frogs aren’t seen too often and that’s because they spend most of their time deep underground, hiding from the harsh sun. They emerge only after rainfall, and then rush to feed and breed before the moisture evaporates and they are forced back beneath the surface. Many species of burrowing frogs encase themselves in a kind of hard cocoon while underground to help reduce water loss. You wouldn’t want to be a burrowing frog with claustrophobia!

4 Budgerigars

Budgerigar. Photo Ben Parkhurst.
Budgerigar. Photo Ben Parkhurst.
When it comes to coping with the unpredictability of the Outback, few things give you more of an advantage to track scarce resources than wings. Budgerigars, like many desert birds, are nomads; they will cover significant distances, often in large flocks, to follow rainfall and seasonally abundant seeding grasses. Aboriginal people traditionally used budgerigars to help guide them to water; a mass of bright green feathers and the murmuration of thousands of birds is easy to spot against red desert sand. More on budgerigars

5 Hopping-mice

Spinifex Hopping Mouse. Photo Lochman Transparencies.
Spinifex Hopping Mouse. Photo Lochman Transparencies.
Australia’s five species of hopping mice share some ingenious traits that allow them to survive with little water. Rather than drinking, they instead get most of the liquid they need from their diet of plants, berries, insects and seeds. Over millions of years they have evolved a digestive system that produces water in the process of breaking those grass seeds down. They also have dry faeces and highly concentrated urine, thanks to some very efficient kidneys. Their populations erupt after rains and then contract to much smaller refuge populations in dry times. More on hopping mice.

6 Spinifex

Spinifex. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
Spinifex. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
Spinifex is a tussock grass that is found throughout much of Outback Australia. Lots of animals find shelter from the heat of the day and from predators in the dense bases of spinifex hummocks. Spinifex, like many other desert plants, uses the colour of its foliage to reduce heat absorption; green leaves absorb heat, but silvery-grey spinifex spines reflect sunlight. The rounded shape of these spines also reduces the amount of surface area exposed to the sun, resulting in less water loss and heat absorption.

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