The harsh conditions in deserts are intolerable for most plants and animals. Despite these conditions, however, many varieties of plants and animals have adapted to deserts in a number of ways. Most plant tissues die if their water content falls too low: the nutrients that feed plants are transmitted by water; water is a raw material in the vital process of photosynthesis; and water regulates the temperature of a plant by its ability to absorb heat and because water vapor lost to the atmosphere through the leaves helps to lower plant temperatures. Water controls the volume of plant matter produced. The distribution of plants within different areas of desert is also controlled by water. Some areas, because of their soil texture, topographical position, or distance from rivers or groundwater, have virtually no water available to plants, whereas others do.
The nature of plant life in deserts is also highly dependent on the fact that they have to adapt to the prevailing aridity. There are two general classes of vegetation: long-lived perennials, which may be succulent (water-storing) and are often dwarfed and woody, and annuals or ephemerals, which have a short life cycle and may form a fairly dense stand immediately after rain.
The ephemeral plants evade drought. Given a year of favorable precipitation, such plants will develop vigorously and produce large numbers of flowers and fruit. This replenishes the seed content of the desert soil. The seeds then lie dormant until the next wet year, when the desert blooms again.
The perennial vegetation adjusts to the aridity by means of various avoidance mechanisms. Most desert plants are probably best classified as xerophytes. They possess drought-resisting adaptations: loss of water through the leaves is reduced by means of dense hairs covering waxy leaf surfaces, by the closure of pores during the hottest times to reduce water loss, and by the rolling up or shedding of leaves at the beginning of the dry season. Some xerophytes, the succulents (including cacti), store water in their structures. Another way of countering drought is to have a limited amount of mass above ground and to have extensive root networks below ground. It is not unusual for the roots of some desert perennials to extend downward more than ten meters. Some plants are woody in type —an adaptation designed to prevent collapse of the plant tissue when water stress produces wilting. Another class of desert plant is the phreatophyte. These have adapted to the environment by the development of long taproots that penetrate downward until they approach the assured water supply provided by groundwater. Among these plants are the date palm, tamarisk, and mesquite. They commonly grow near stream channels, springs, or on the margins of lakes.
Animals also have to adapt to desert conditions, and they may do it through two forms of behavioral adaptation: they either escape or retreat. Escape involves such actions as aestivation, a condition of prolonged dormancy, or torpor, during which animals reduce their metabolic rate and body temperature during the hot season or during very dry spells.
Seasonal migration is another form of escape, especially for large mammals or birds. The term retreat is applied to the short-term escape behavior of desert animals, and it usually assumes the pattern of a daily rhythm. Birds shelter in nests, rock overhangs, trees, and dense shrubs to avoid the hottest hours of the day, while mammals like the kangaroo rat burrow underground.
Some animals have behavioral, physiological, and morphological (structural) adaptations that enable them to withstand extreme conditions. For example, the ostrich has plumage that is so constructed that the feathers are long but not too dense. When conditions are hot, the ostrich erects them on its back, thus increasing the thickness of the barrier between solar radiation and the skin. The sparse distribution of the feathers, however, also allows considerable lateral air movement over the skin surface, thereby permitting further heat loss by convection. Furthermore, the birds orient themselves carefully with regard to the Sun and gently flap their wings to increase convection cooling