Sand dunes in Death Valley National Monument, California.
Deserts cover about one fifth of the Earth's surface and occur where rainfall is less than 50 cm/year. Although most deserts, such as the Sahara of North Africa and the deserts of the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and Australia, occur at low latitudes, another kind of desert, cold deserts, occur in the basin and range area of Utah and Nevada and in parts of western Asia. Most deserts have a considerable amount of specialized vegetation, as well as specialized vertebrate and invertebrate animals. Soils often have abundant nutrients because they need only water to become very productive and have little or no organic matter. Disturbances are common in the form of occasional fires or cold weather, and sudden, infrequent, but intense rains that cause flooding.
There are relatively few large mammals in deserts because most are not capable of storing sufficient water and withstanding the heat. Deserts often provide little shelter from the sun for large animals. The dominant animals of warm deserts are nonmammalian vertebrates, such as reptiles. Mammals are usually small, like the kangaroo mice of North American deserts.
Desert biomes can be classified according to several characteristics.
There are four major types of deserts:
The four major North American deserts of this type are the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mojave and Great Basin. Others outside the U.S. include the Southern Asian realm, Neotropical (South and Central America), Ethiopian (Africa) and Australian.
The seasons are generally warm throughout the year and very hot in the summer. The winters usually bring little rainfall.
From left: Baja, Mexico desert; desert in Uluru National Park, Australia; desert near the Kofa Mountains, Arizona.
Temperatures exhibit daily extremes because the atmosphere contains little humidity to block the Sun's rays. Desert surfaces receive a little more than twice the solar radiation received by humid regions and lose almost twice as much heat at night. Many mean annual temperatures range from 20-25° C. The extreme maximum ranges from 43.5-49° C. Minimum temperatures sometimes drop to -18° C.
Rainfall is usually very low and/or concentrated in short bursts between long rainless periods. Evaporation rates regularly exceed rainfall rates. Sometimes rain starts falling and evaporates before reaching the ground. Rainfall is lowest on the Atacama Desert of Chile, where it averages less than 1.5 cm. Some years are even rainless. Inland Sahara also receives less than 1.5 cm a year. Rainfall in American deserts is higher almost 28 cm a year.
Soils are course-textured, shallow, rocky or gravely with good drainage and have no subsurface water. They are coarse because there is less chemical weathering. The finer dust and sand particles are blown elsewhere, leaving heavier pieces behind.
Canopy in most deserts is very rare. Plants are mainly ground-hugging shrubs and short woody trees. Leaves are "replete" (fully supported with nutrients) with water-conserving characteristics. They tend to be small, thick and covered with a thick cuticle (outer layer). In the cacti, the leaves are much-reduced (to spines) and photosynthetic activity is restricted to the stems. Some plants open their stomata (microscopic openings in the epidermis of leaves that allow for gas exchange) only at night when evaporation rates are lowest. These plants include: yuccas, ocotillo, turpentine bush, prickly pears, false mesquite, sotol, ephedras, agaves and brittlebush.
The animals include small nocturnal (active at night) carnivores. The dominant animals are burrowers and kangaroo rats. There are also insects, arachnids, reptiles and birds. The animals stay inactive in protected hideaways during the hot day and come out to forage at dusk, dawn or at night, when the desert is cooler.
The major deserts of this type include the sagebrush of Utah, Montana and Great Basin. They also include the Nearctic realm (North America, Newfoundland, Greenland, Russia, Europe and northern Asia).
The summers are moderately long and dry, and like hot deserts, the winters normally bring low concentrations of rainfall. Summer temperatures usually average between 21-27° C. It normally does not go above 38° C and evening temperatures are cool, at around 10° C. Cool nights help both plants and animals by reducing moisture loss from transpiration, sweating and breathing. Furthermore, condensation of dew caused by night cooling may equal or exceed the rainfall received by some deserts. As in the hot desert, rainfall is often very low and/or concentrated. The average rainfall ranges from 2-4 cm annually.
From left: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, southern Nevada; sagebrush near Bridger, Montana; Castle Valley, Utah, east of Arches National Park.
The soil can range from sandy and fine-textured to loose rock fragments, gravel or sand. It has a fairly low salt concentration, compared to deserts which receive a lot of rain (acquiring higher salt concentrations as a result). In areas such as mountain slopes, the soil is shallow, rocky or gravely with good drainage. In the upper bajada (lower slopes) they are coarse-textured, rocky, well-drained and partly "laid by rock bench." In the lower bajada (bottom land) the soil is sandy and fine-textured, often with "caliche hardpan." In each case there is no subsurface water.
The spiny nature of many plants in semiarid deserts provides protection in a hazardous environment. The large numbers of spines shade the surface enough to significantly reduce transpiration. The same may be true of the hairs on the woolly desert plants. Many plants have silvery or glossy leaves, allowing them to reflect more radiant energy. These plants often have an unfavorable odor or taste. Semiarid plants include: Creosote bush, bur sage (Franseria dumosa or F. deltoidea), white thorn, cat claw, mesquite, brittle bushes (Encelia farinosa), lyciums, and jujube.
During the day, insects move around twigs to stay on the shady side; jack rabbits follow the moving shadow of a cactus or shrub. Naturally, many animals find protection in underground burrows where they are insulated from both heat and aridity. These animals include mammals such as the kangaroo rats, rabbits, and skunks; insects like grasshoppers and ants; reptiles are represented by lizards and snakes; and birds such as burrowing owls and the California thrasher.
These deserts occur in moderately cool to warm areas such as the Nearctic and Neotropical realm. A good example is the Atacama of Chile.
The cool winters of coastal deserts are followed by moderately long, warm summers. The average summer temperature ranges from 13-24° C; winter temperatures are 5° C or below. The maximum annual temperature is about 35° C and the minimum is about -4° C. In Chile, the temperature ranges from -2 to 5° C in July and 21-25° C in January.
The average rainfall measures 8-13 cm in many areas. The maximum annual precipitation over a long period of years has been 37 cm with a minimum of 5 cm.
The soil is fine-textured with a moderate salt content. It is fairly porous with good drainage. Some plants have extensive root systems close to the surface where they can take advantage of any rain showers. All of the plants with thick and fleshy leaves or stems can take in large quantities of water when it is available and store it for future use. In some plants, the surfaces are corrugated with longitudinal ridges and grooves. When water is available, the stem swells so that the grooves are shallow and the ridges far apart. As the water is used, the stem shrinks so that the grooves are deep and ridges close together. The plants living in this type of desert include the salt bush, buckwheat bush, black bush, rice grass, little leaf horsebrush, black sage, and chrysothamnus.
Some animals have specialized adaptations for dealing with the desert heat and lack of water. Some toads seal themselves in burrows with gelatinous secretions and remain inactive for eight or nine months until a heavy rain occurs. Amphibians that pass through larval stages have accelerated life cycles, which improves their chances of reaching maturity before the waters evaporate. Some insects lay eggs that remain dormant until the environmental conditions are suitable for hatching. The fairy shrimps also lay dormant eggs. Other animals include: insects, mammals (coyote and badger), amphibians (toads), birds (great horned owl, golden eagle and the bald eagle), and reptiles (lizards and snakes).
These deserts are characterized by cold winters with snowfall and high overall rainfall throughout the winter and occasionally over the summer. They occur in the Antarctic, Greenland and the Nearctic realm. They have short, moist, and moderately warm summers with fairly long, cold winters. The mean winter temperature is between -2 to 4° C and the mean summer temperature is between 21-26° C.
The winters receive quite a bit of snow. The mean annual precipitation ranges from 15-26 cm. Annual precipitation has reached a maximum of 46 cm and a minimum of 9 cm. The heaviest rainfall of the spring is usually in April or May. In some areas, rainfall can be heavy in autumn. The soil is heavy, silty, and salty. It contains alluvial fans where soil is relatively porous and drainage is good so that most of the salt has been leached out.
The plants are widely scattered. In areas of shadscale, about 10 percent of the ground is covered, but in some areas of sagebush it approaches 85 percent. Plant heights vary between 15 cm and 122 cm. The main plants are deciduous, most having spiny leaves. Widely distributed animals are jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, kangaroo mice, pocket mice, grasshopper mice, and antelope ground squirrels. In areas like Utah, population density of these animals can range from 14-41 individuals per hectare. All except the jack rabbits are burrowers. The burrowing habit also applies to carnivores like the badger, kit fox, and coyote. Several lizards do some burrowing and moving of soil. Deer are found only in the winter.
Top photo by David K. Smith, UCMP; Hot and dry desert photos, from left: Glenn and Martha Vargas © 2004 California Academy of Sciences; Gerald and Buff Corsi © 2002 California Academy of Sciences; Glenn and Martha Vargas © 2004 California Academy of Sciences. Semiarid desert photos, from left: Gerald and Buff Corsi © 2000 California Academy of Sciences; David K. Smith, UCMP; Gerald and Buff Corsi © 2000 California Academy of Sciences. Cold desert photos, from left: Gerald and Buff Corsi © 2004 California Academy of Sciences; Dr. Lloyd Glenn Ingles © 1999 California Academy of Sciences.
The original biomes pages were created in fall 1996 by the Biomes Group, Biology 1B class, section 115, at UC Berkeley; all were reformatted, with many new photos added, in March, 2007. Coral reef photo by Marguerite Gregory © 2004 California Academy of Sciences. The pages were re-designed in 2019 as part of a general UCMP website overhaul. Unless noted, content on these pages have not been updated.