Animals

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.

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

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
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

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

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.

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