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The ultimate animal survivors

Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s a desert-dwelling superhero, armed to overcome the villainous powers of the planet’s driest places. Seriously.

Deserts cover one-third of Earth’s land surface, where more water evaporates than falls. Like any comic book super-villain worth their salt, these parched places are constantly building their empire. Every year a further 80,000 square kilometres of grass and farmland are estimated to fall victim to this devious desert scoundrel. But fear not, a team of bold species have evolved to take on the waterless wilds and make them home.

Facing temperatures that can exceed 50 degrees Celsius, the Sahara is one of the largest and most inhospitable deserts in the world. With hurricane force winds, spawning sand storms and dust devils, it poses huge challenges to even the toughest animals. Enter the Addax: a sleek and striking antelope with long, elegant horns. Its power lies in its natural super-animal cloak, which changes colour to protect it from the rays of the burning sun.

The Addax has a coat of fur which changes colour to protect it from sun's rays © BBC NHU 2016
The Addax has a coat of fur which changes colour to protect it from sun's rays © BBC NHU 2016

In the summer their coat is white, like a shield that reflects sunlight away. When winter comes this coat turns a brownish grey that absorbs warmth, helping them conserve body heat. They are also armed with flat feet, which give them the power to literally walk all over their fuming desert adversary without sinking into its burning depths. The plants they eat while traversing through these arid conditions keep them hydrated, so the lack of water doesn’t faze these antelopes from taking on the might of the desert.

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Further south on the African continent is the notorious Namib Desert. As one of the driest habitats in the world, this region doesn’t take any prisoners. Some parts have to get by on barely a drop of water, receiving scarcely half an inch of rain a year. It is thought conditions here have been arid for at least 55 million years, giving a few valiant animals the time to launch a counter-attack.

The fogstand beetle has an ingenious approach to getting itself something to drink © BBC NHU 2016
The fogstand beetle has an ingenious approach to getting itself something to drink © BBC NHU 2016

The fogstand beetle is one such creature. It has an ingenious approach to getting itself something to drink in this expanse of sun-baked sand. It is a mutant-ninja who defeats the desiccated desert by using its body to harvest water. Facing into early-morning foggy winds, the beetle sticks its rear-end up in the air. This ‘fog-basking’ behaviour allows dew to collect on its exoskeleton. Micro-sized grooves and bumps on the beetle’s hardened forewings can help condense and direct water toward the beetle’s mouth, giving them the boost they need to fight another day in this harsh wilderness.

Namaqua sand grouse fly in synchrony to quench their thirst © BBC NHU 2016
Namaqua sand grouse fly in synchrony to quench their thirst © BBC NHU 2016

Like the beetle, Namaqua sand grouse have evolved a clever way to dodge dehydration in the desert. Just after sunrise, all the grouse in a region fly in synchrony to visit the nearest waterhole. Here the males wade into the water, crouch low and rock to and fro to saturate their specially adapted feathers. These act like a sponge, sucking in up to 20 millilitres of water at a time. The water-laden dads then fly their cargo back to their thirsty young. Once the chicks have had their fill, the adults wash off remaining moisture with a sand bath, disguising the potent aroma of wet-bird from any predators sniffing out food.

The Australian thorny devil's armoured body-suit protects it from danger in the Outback © BBC NHU 2016
The Australian thorny devil's armoured body-suit protects it from danger in the Outback © BBC NHU 2016

The Australian thorny devil (Moloch horridus) has opted for an armoured body-suit to protect itself from the dangers of the blistering outback. Not only is their body covered with formidable thorns and spikes, but they also have what looks like a second head on their back. This confuses any adversary trying to sneak up from behind, and make it look like a seriously unappetising snack. This lizard has another trick up its thorny sleeve, to combat the constant peril of dehydration. In the early mornings they rub their spiny suit against the dewy sand. Tiny drops of moisture trickle along the grooves in between the spikes, and into their mouth: powering them up for another day in the desert.

As well as defending themselves from the elements, our superhero species also have to contend with desert predators. Native to North America, northern chuckwallas (Sauromalus) have developed a remarkable way of making sure they are not vanquished by creatures higher up the food chain. These large lizards are often found in desert regions; that is, if you can find them. Chuckwallas can change colour to match their surroundings, helping them bask and forage ‘under the radar’ of anything that might have them for lunch. But if they are spotted, they have a plan B: bestowed with the ability to inflate themselves on demand, they can evade the clutches of would-be predators. Scurrying into cracks and crevices at the first sign of danger, they puff themselves up to seal any gaps, making it near impossible for anything to pull them from the safety of the rocks.

Despite the might of the desert environment and the constant threat of hunters, many creatures find a way to live and thrive in these surroundings. Not to be thwarted by villainously harsh conditions, these superhero species have adapted to overcome the odds, and shown just how resourceful they can be. Each has a bio-arsenal to tackle the challenges thrown at it, to live to fight another day in their desert dynasty.

Featured image © BBC 2016

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