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20 Amazing Animal Adaptations for Living in the Desert

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As the summer temperatures continue to climb, you may find yourself spending more and more time indoors enjoying the comforts of central air conditioning. But without the benefit of modern technology, animals that make their home in the heat have had to come up with their own ways of staying cool and hydrated. We caught up with San Diego Zoo Ambassador and Zookeeper Rick Schwartz between television appearances in New York City to talk about the incredible ways that some creatures have adapted to survive in the desert.

1. The Thorny Devil Drinks with Its Skin.

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In the Australian Outback, pooled water can be extremely hard to come by. To deal with this issue, the thorny devil has developed skin that can absorb water like blotter paper (called “capillary action”). According to Schwartz, “the way the scales on the body are structured, it collects dew and channels it down to the corners of the mouth," where the lizard drinks it. You can actually watch the lizard’s skin darken as it soaks up whatever liquid remains from even the muckiest of puddles.

2. The African Pyxie Frog Can Hibernate in a Water-Soluble Mucus Sac for Years.

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Schwartz says it was previously believed that these animals died off during every dry season, but what was actually happening was far more interesting. When the rainy season ends on the African savannah, the second largest frog in the world burrows 6 to 8 inches underground and seals itself in a mucus membrane that “essentially hardens into a cocoon.” The frog can “hibernate” in this sac for up to seven years waiting for rain, which, when it comes, causes the mucus sac to soften, signaling to the frog that it’s time to wake up. The South African lungfish benefits from a similar method of hibernation.

3. “Sidewinding” May Look Funny, But It’s Actually Highly Efficient.

This unusual method of locomotion is used by two species of venomous snake—the Mojave Desert sidewinder in the southwestern United States and the Namib Desert viper in Africa. Not only does it help the serpents keep traction on shifting sands, but it ensures that only two points of the animals’ bodies are touching the hot ground at any given time.

4. The Chuckwalla Is the Puffer Fish of the Desert.

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When facing a predator, this large lizard will scurry under a rock crevice and inflate the loose folds of skin along its body, making it difficult to pull from its hiding place—a perfect escape plan in the rocky deserts of the U.S. and northern Mexico that the chuckwalla calls home.

5. Big Ears Act Like Radiators.

The fennec fox of North Africa has large ears which Schwartz points out “serve a dual purpose”: they are great for listening for bugs to eat that may be moving around underground, but they are also loaded with blood vessels, allowing the animals to dissipate excess body heat. Schwartz points out that while big ears are wonderful radiators during hot days, the fox’s thick fur coat also acts as insulation during cold desert nights.

6. The Cape Ground Squirrel Takes Shade Everywhere It Goes.

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Native to the driest areas of southern Africa, this borrowing rodent can actually use its bushy tail as a sort of parasol—a function I think we all envy from time to time.

7. The Camel Is a Living Desert Adaptation.

Tambako the Jaguar 

No discussion of desert survival is complete without a mention of the camel. You know that the hump stores fat, which can be used as both a food and water source for the animal when the going gets tough. But Schwartz points out that camels also have thick hairs in their ears for keeping out sand, and the same can be said of their eyelashes—“there’s not a model out there that wouldn’t want eyelashes like that,” Schwartz says. Camels also sport closable nostrils, a nictitating eye membrane, and wide feet that act like snowshoes in the sand.

8. Camels Aren’t the Only Animals That Store Fat for Desert Survival.

Greg Goebel

The Gila Monster—one of only two venomous lizards in the world—spends most of its life underground and can go months between meals by living off of fat stored in its tail. This is a handy little survival trick during the dry season in their Sonoran Desert habitat.

9. Can’t Find Food? Toughen Up!

Tanya Durrant

The peccary, or javelina, has a tough mouth and specialized digestive system which enables it to chomp down on prickly pear cactus pads (one of their favorite foods) without feeling the effects of the plant’s thousands of tiny spines. “I can’t imagine biting into the paddle of a cactus, but these animals definitely have found ways to do that,” Schwartz says. As an added bonus, using cactus as a food source is a great way to supplement water intake as the spiny succulents are absolutely loaded with the stuff.

10. The Sand Grouse Can Carry Water In Its Feathers.

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This bird, found mainly in the deserts of Asia and North Africa, has specialized feathers on its belly that are able to soak up small quantities of water. Males of the species will use these feathers like a sponge to carry water back to their nests, which they then share with their female counterparts and offspring.

11. The Dorcas Gazelle Never Has to Drink Water or Urinate.

Marie Hale

Though they will drink water when it is available, this small species of North African antelope can get all of the water it needs from the food in its diet. When water is unavailable, the Dorcas gazelle can concentrate its urine into uric acid, which Schwartz describes as “a white pellet” instead of the hydraulically expensive liquid waste. “That’s water conservation,” he says, “and they need to hold on to whatever they get.”

12. The Fogstand Beetle Drinks Dew Drops.

The Namib Desert in Africa has very little fresh water to speak of, but due to its proximity to the sea, it receives a daily dose of fog in the cool hours of the early morning. Fogstand beetles have learned to stand still in order to let the fog condense on their bodies in the form of water droplets, which they then drink.

13. The Roadrunner “Cries Out” Excess Salt

Linda Tanner

As Schwartz points out, the metabolic processes of the body all have outputs which often occur in the form of mineral build up. “Animals that live in an environment where water is readily available will just [get rid of those minerals] through their urine,” he says. “When you have animals that live in these extreme environments where they don’t want to excrete any fluids, the body will find other ways to get rid of those minerals.” The greater roadrunner of North America, which like the Dorcas gazelle can survive its whole life without drinking water, has developed a unique way of dealing with this problem: it secretes excess salt from a gland near its eye.

14. Delicate Skin Keeps the African Spiny Mouse Protected.

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Not only are these animals able to close any wounds through a special process of contraction, but the exceptionally weak skin of these mice means it is also much easier to regenerate, allowing wounded spiny mice to heal from superficial wounds much faster than other species—a process which minimizes blood loss.

15. The Blind Skink Stays Under the Sand.

Buckham Birding

With subspecies in Africa, Asia, and Australia, this freaky legless lizard has developed an ingenious method of dealing with high desert surface temperatures—simply staying out of them. Blind skinks have lost their legs and eyes through evolution and, like the sandworms from Beetlejuice, prefer to stay hidden underground where they can tunnel in search of creepy crawlies to munch on.

16. Scorpions Can Slow Their Metabolic Rate, Allowing Them to “Hibernate” While Awake.

Matt Reinbold

Scorpions are able to go up to a year without eating thanks to their specialized metabolisms. Unlike other animals that experience a seasonal hibernation, though, a scorpion is still able to react to the presence of prey with lightning quickness even while in this state of nearly suspended animation.

17. Kangaroos Cool Themselves With Spit Baths.

Josh Berglund

To survive the harsh Australian summers, kangaroos will cool off by licking their forelegs. A special network of blood vessels in the legs allows the animals to reduce their body temperatures quickly through the evaporation of saliva since kangaroos lack regular sweat glands.

18. Meerkats Are Always Game-Ready.

Marieke IJsendoorn-Kuijpers

The black circles around the eyes of these social African mammals is often compared to a natural pair of sunglasses, though Schwartz says that the pattern actually functions by “absorbing the sun and preventing it from reflecting back into the eyes.” This means that the pattern works more like the eye black used by professional athletes than actual lenses. Still, says Schwartz, it allows them “to see more clearly” while awake during the day, compared to nocturnal predators such as lions, whose eyes have no special markings whatsoever.

19. The Addax Antelope Changes Color With the Seasons.

Susan E Adams

Another creature native to the Sahara Desert, the Addax antelope rarely if ever needs to drink water to survive. To cope with the unforgiving desert sun, the Addax sports a white coat in the summer which reflects sunlight, but in the winter the coat turns brownish-gray so as to better absorb heat.

20. The Common Kingsnake Is Immune to Rattlesnake Venom.

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What better way is there to silence your competition than by eating them? The common kingsnake is so specialized to that end that not only do they hunt by clamping down on a snake’s jaws before constricting it to death, they have also developed an immunity to rattlesnake venom, making the vipers one of their favorite food sources.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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16 Playful Facts About Otters
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These adorable aquatic mammals are clever, chatty, and oddly aromatic.

1. THERE ARE 13 SPECIES OF OTTERS, AND JUST ABOUT ALL OF THEM ARE DECREASING.

Only one otter species seems to be thriving, and that's the North American River Otter. The other 12 otter species were recently identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as having decreasing populations, and five otter species are already on the endangered list. Among the endangered are the sea otters along the California coast, which are threatened by "environmental pollutants and disease agents." Others, like the marine otters of South America, have had their numbers reduced because of poaching, as well as environmental concerns.

2. ZOROASTRIANS THOUGHT THE OTTERS TO BE NEARLY SACRED CREATURES.

This ancient monotheistic religion considered otters to be the dogs of the river or sea and had strict rules forbidding the killing of otters. It was thought that otters helped keep water purified by eating already dead creatures that might contaminate the water source if they were allowed rot. They would also hold ceremonies for otters found dead in the wild.

3. OTTERS HAVE VERY DISTINCTIVE POOP, AND THAT SCAT HAS ITS OWN NAME.

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Otters use their dung—known as spraint—to mark territory and communicate with other otters. The mammals like to keep things organized within their communities and will designate certain areas to be used as latrines. Spraint scents can vary, but often are (relatively) pleasant—one expert described them as not "dissimilar to jasmine tea." Spraint composition is unique to each otter, and the creatures can identify each other by the smells. Scientists suspect otters may even be able to determine the sex, age, and reproductive status of the spraint dropper just from a quick whiff. And since otters have superb metabolisms and must eat up to 15 percent of their body weight each day, there's a lot of spraint to go around.

4. OTTER MOMS ARE TOTALLY GAME FOR ADOPTION.

In 2001, a female otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium gave birth to a stillborn pup on the same day a stranded pup was discovered in the wild nearby. The aquarium staff had previously tried raising pups themselves but found that hand-raised otters became too attached to humans to be released back into the wild. So instead, they dropped the pup in with the female otter, and she immediately went into mom mode. The aquarium has since devised a system of hand-rearing pups for the first 6-8 weeks—mostly for bottle feeding purposes—before handing the pups off to female otters for raising. At six months, the pups are released back into the wild with generally strong results.

5. THEY HAVE THE THICKEST FUR OF ANY MAMMAL IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM.

Otters can have up to one million hairs per square inch. There are two layers of fur—an undercoat and then longer hairs that we can see. The layers manage to trap air next to the otter's skin, which keeps the otters dry and warm and also helps with buoyancy. Otter pups have so much air trapped in there, they actually can’t dive under water, even if they want to.

6. AN OTTER IS SOMETIMES ONLY AS GOOD AS HIS TOOLS.

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Otters love to eat shelled animals, like clams, but they aren't equipped with the strength to open their food without some help. Therefore, they are big on tools and will often use rocks to help crack into dinner. While they hunt for food underwater, they’ll often store a rock in the skin under their arms for later use.

7. OTTERS ARE POPULAR IN NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE, BUT FOR VARYING REASONS.

Some tribes consider the otter to be a lucky animal and a symbol of "loyalty and honesty." But some, particularly in present-day Canada and Alaska, viewed the river otter "with awe and dread" and associated the creatures with the undead and drowning. They forbid eating the creatures and were offended when colonial Europeans began hunting the river otters and selling their furs.

8. GIANT OTTERS ARE SUPER CHATTY.

In 2014, a study of giant otters found that the river-dwellers have 22 distinct noises they make for different situations. On top of that, pups have 11 of their own calls that they intersperse with "infant babbling." Among the most notable calls: a "hum graduation" used to tell otters to change directions and a "Hah!" shout when a threat is nearby.

9. OTTERS AND HUMANS CAN COLLABORATE.

In Bangladesh, otters help fisherman maximize their haul. For centuries, fisherman have been training otters to act as herders and chase large schools of fish into the nets.

10. DRONES MAY HELP SCIENTISTS BETTER STUDY OTTERS IN THE WILD.

Keeping an eye on otters in the wild is a tricky task. In the past, observers have usually set up telescopes on shore to try and monitor otters at sea while on land. Otters won't act naturally with humans nearby, and using a telescope on a boat can get tricky in the rollicking ocean. But now, scientists are using unmanned drones with cameras to get an aerial look at otters in their element, making it easier to monitor the creatures as they dive for food and go about their day.

11. SEE A GROUP OF OTTERS? THAT'S A ROMP. OR A BEVY.

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Or a family or a raft. Otter groups go by a few different monikers, all of which are fairly unique to that crew. Generally, a group of otters on land will go by a romp, while a group hanging in the water is called a raft.

12. OTTERS ARE BIG ON PLAY TIME, AND MAKING SLIDES IS AMONG THEIR FAVORITE GAMES.

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Otter families are usually limited to pups and their mothers, and that duo will spend most of their time either feeding or sleeping. In the downtime, though, otters love to play and will often build themselves slides along the banks of rivers.

13. CALIFORNIA SEA OTTERS DIVIDE THEMSELVES IN DIET GUILDS.

Once thought to be gone from the area completely, southern sea otters—known as California sea otters—have been making a comeback in recent years. But with their numbers hovering around just a few thousand, researchers have kept a close eye on the population and their studies have revealed an interesting social structure. The otters, which need to consume 25 percent to 35 percent of their body weight every day in order to maintain their blubber stores and keep themselves warm in the cool waters, are divided into three "dietary guilds": Deep-diving otters that dine on abalone, urchins, and Dungeness crab; medium divers who subsist on clams, worms, and smaller shellfish; and those that stay in shallower waters, feeding on black snails.

14. THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO SET FOOT IN ALASKA WAS ALSO THE FIRST TO DESCRIBE SEA OTTERS.

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Georg Wilhelm Steller was the first to scientifically describe numerous new animals on the 1741 explorative voyage from Russia. Aboard the St. Peter, Steller and other 18th-century explorers crash-landed on mainland Alaska after getting separated from its sister ship. Steller was the first European to set foot on the icy land. Over the course of a rough Alaskan winter, he meticulously documented many species, and while some have since gone extinct (like a sea-cow he described that was hunted into extinction), the adorable otter was among his initial discoveries.

15. BABY OTTERS ARE BUOYANT, BUT THEY CAN'T SWIM ON THEIR OWN.

A mother will often wrap the babies in kelp to keep them in one place while she hunts. Or, she might rely on human resources and otter ingenuity to find a makeshift “playpen” for her pup.

16. THEIR BEHAVIOR ISN'T ALWAYS ADORABLE.

Like many animals, otters sometimes behave in ways that aren't exactly within the bounds of what humans would consider morally acceptable. Even if you find them otherwise adorable, otters' mating habits will no doubt make your stomach turn.

Male otters' mating techniques are violent. They bite their female partner's face during copulation to keep her from slipping away, leaving her with substantial facial wounds. It's not uncommon for female otters to die as a result of these aggressive encounters, either through drowning or from their wounds becoming infected. Male otters have also been known to violently copulate with other species—most notably, baby seals [PDF]. The behavior doesn't stop when the seals die from the trauma. Otters have been known to guard and have sex with the bodies of their victims for up to seven days after they've died.

Scientists hypothesize that these seemingly counterproductive mating habits might be the result of a population imbalance. In California's Monterey Bay, where scientists observed otters trying to copulate with the week-old bodies of dead baby seals, there are far more male otters than females. Facing a lack of female partners, male otters may be engaging in what researchers call "misdirected sexual activity." The area in the bay where the scientists observed the most otter-on-seal mating sessions was also where there was a high population of transient male otters, ones that, unlike more dominant males, don't have an established territory filled with potential mates. In the absence of females of their own kind, then, they turned their typical sexual responses toward the seals. Nature, unfortunately, isn't always pretty.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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