The word ‘desert’ conjures up an image of a barren, lifeless landscape, but appearances can be deceptive. Although deserts and so-called dryland habitats are indeed largely waterless and parched, they are able to support a great variety of life.
Deserts are found on every single continent on the planet. They range from the subtropical deserts of the Sahara and the Kalahari, to cold winter deserts like the Gobi in Central Asia and cool coastal deserts such as the Namib in southern Africa and Atacama of northern Chile.
You might imagine deserts to be endless stretches of flat sand and rippling dunes, but only 10% of the world’s deserts are sandy, and the rest come in many guises: salt flats such as Great Salt Lake in the USA and Etosha pan in Namibia; areas covered in vegetation such as brush and dry grasses; expanses of ice; and the pebbly, rocky, cobbled terrain known as desert pavement.
Since these areas are defined by their relative lack of rainfall and short growing seasons, places such as the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica also qualify as desert.
Unsurprisingly, desert species are highly adapted and able to handle the harsh, punishing conditions of their home: Kalahari ground squirrels use their own tails as parasols; the bulbous water-storing trunks of comifora and quiver trees enable them to survive extended periods of drought between occasional downpours; outsized ears help fennec foxes, jerboas and jack rabbits keep cool; the bright-white coat of the Arabian oryx reflects the sun’s rays. These inhospitable regions are also home to human settlements, and have been for millennia. Roughly 40% of the world’s population lives in dryland regions, including some of the poorest people on the planet, who rely on trade and subsistence agriculture to survive.