20 Unique Animals That Live in the Desert (Pictures)

With approximately a third of the Earth’s surface being a desert habitat, there are hundreds of species of animals that call this environment home. From lack of water to extreme temperature fluctuations, animals that live in the desert have to adapt to various conditions. It’s not surprising they have evolved to have interesting attributes that allow them to survive.

Let’s look at 20 animals that live in the desert and learn facts about how they manage the conditions.

Animals that live in the desert

1. Jackrabbit

black-tailed jackrabbit

Scientific name: Lepus

Despite their name, jackrabbits are not rabbits, but they are hares. They can be identified by their large, long, and pointed ears. Originally they were called “jackass rabbits” since they have ears like donkeys, but their name was later shortened.

They can run up to 40 miles per hour and leap up to 10 feet with their powerful hind legs. This allows them to avoid predators easily.


2. Gray Fox

gray fox

Scientific name: Urocyon cinereoargenteus

The gray fox is found in multiple deserts in the U.S., including all four deserts of the American Southwest. They are the only dog family members that can climb trees. Gray foxes use trees to seek refuge, store food, and search for roosting birds. They are small in size, typically 32 to 45 inches long.


3. Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion

Scientific name: Hadrurus arizonesis

The Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion lives up to its name by growing up to 5.5 inches long. They live in northern Mexico and the southwestern states like Texas. These scorpions dig burrows up to 8 feet long and emerge at night. The hairs on their bodies allow them to detect vibrations in the ground for food or predators.


4. Hyenas

Scientific name: Crocuta

Hyenas live mostly in semi-desert habitats and are nocturnal animals. They stay in their dens during the day and hunt at night with their great sense of sight, smell, and sound. These animals have a large frontal cortex in their brain that scientists believe contributes to their high level of intelligence and problem-solving abilities.


5. Sidewinder Rattlesnake

image: gilaman | Flickr | CC BY 2.0 | Sidewinder

Scientific name: Crotalus cerastes

Sidewinder rattlesnakes live in the deserts of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and northern Mexico. These snakes can switch from being active during the day or during the night, depending on the temperature. They are nocturnal during the warmer months and diurnal during the cooler months.


6. Kangaroo Rat

image by Saguaro National Park via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Dipodomys ingens

Kangaroo rats are so well adapted to desert life that they can survive without drinking water. They get the moisture they need from their diet of seeds. They also have amazing hearing, so they can detect predators, such as owls, approaching. These animals are found in the western and southwestern regions of the U.S.


7. Meerkat

Scientific name: Suricata suricatta

Meerkats are known for their distinctive upright standing position. They are social animals that live in elaborate underground tunnels with groups of up to 50 Meerkats. When foraging, sentries will survey the land and alert the group of threats using alarm calls that vary depending on the threat.

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8. Gila Monster

Scientific name: Heloderma suspectum

Gila monsters are venomous lizards with the ability to climb cacti and trees for food. They have a great sense of smell to locate prey up high. However, besides hunting, they spend most of their time underground. They are native to the southwestern U.S. region and Sonora State in Mexico.


9. Camel

Scientific name: Camelus 

Camels are well-known desert animals with one or two humps that help them adapt to desert life with very little water. They store up to 80 pounds of fat in each hump.

Camels break down the fat into energy and water when other food sources aren’t available. This feature allows them to travel up to 100 miles without water. During the colder months, camels also grow a thick coat to protect them from freezing temperatures.


10. Lappet-Faced Vulture

lappet-faced vulture | image by Bernard DUPONT via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Torgos tracheliotos

Lappet-Faced vultures live in the deserts of the Middle East and Africa. It is one of the strongest and biggest vultures, so it often prevents other vultures from feeding, as well as being known to face off against jackals.

They can also conserve energy at night in case they don’t find prey the next day. Their bald head and wings can help them raise their body temperatures or lose excess body heat, depending on what they need.


11. Desert Pupfish

Scientific name: Cyprinodon macularius

The Desert Pupfish lives in desert springs, pools, and streams. They can adapt during cold winter months by burrowing into an underwater home to survive by feeding on algae. These fish usually grow up to 3 inches long and live 6 to 9 months.


12. Bighorn Sheep

Image: skeeze | pixabay.com

Scientific name: Ovis canadensis Nelson

The Bighorn sheep have adapted to desert life impressively well. They can go weeks without a permanent water source and lose up to 20 percent of their water weight. They also recover from dehydration easily and get water from food such as grass and cacti or rainwater from small rock puddles.


13. Greater Earless Lizard

male greater earless lizard | image by Bureau of Land Management via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Holbrookia texana

Greater Earless lizards like to sit in the sun on warm rocks. They have an amazing ability to regulate their body temperature. Whenever they need to raise their temperature, they turn their body broadside to the sun. When they need lower temperatures, they take shelter and hide in the crevices between rocks in extreme conditions.


14. Greater Roadrunner

Scientific name: Geococcyx californianus

The Greater Roadrunner can change their body temperature to adapt to the extreme desert environment. At night, they lower their body temperature and, in the morning, warm up by spreading their wings in the sun.

This ability to regulate temperature lets them conserve energy for running down prey. Although the Greater Roadrunner can fly, they prefer to run and are fearless predators able to eat poisonous prey like rattlesnakes.


15. Mountain Lion

Image: enki0908 | pixabay.com

Scientific name: Puma concolor

Mountain lions are also known as pumas, panthers, and cougars, among other names. They are found in parts of North America, including the Mojave Desert. Cougars live mostly solitary lives, roaming in deserts near high mountains. Their excellent hearing and vision allow them to avoid extreme heat by hunting in the early morning and evening or night.

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16. Desert Iguana

Scientific name: Dipsosaurus dorsalis

Desert iguanas are the most commonly seen lizards in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico deserts. They regulate their body temperature by changing color. In the morning, they are darker to absorb solar heat and in the afternoon they become almost pure white to reflect sunlight.


17. Hummingbird

Scientific name: Trochilidae

Hummingbirds are small birds with fast wings moving around 10 to 15 times per second. Although they can’t walk well, they can easily hover in place. While not typically thought of as desert animals, these small birds do live in some deserts and can survive cold desert nights by going into a semi-hibernation-like state called torpor. They allow their heart rate to slow significantly to reduce their metabolism.


18. Desert Burro Deer

image: Pixabay.com

Scientific name: Odocoileus hemionus eremicus

Desert Burro deers, also known as Mule deers, are one of 6 types of deer in North America and have multiple desert adaptions. They are most active during the warm early morning hours. Their larger feet and keen sense of smell also allow them to detect and claw out water up to 2 feet deep. Additionally, they quickly navigate rough terrain to escape predators by hopping with all four hooves hitting the ground at once.


19. Red Kangaroo

Scientific name: Macropus rufus

The Red Kangaroo is the largest kangaroo species in Australia and lives in desert habitats without much water. These marsupials have adapted to drinking less water and losing less water with concentrated urine. They also avoid the sun’s heat by looking for food mostly at dawn, dusk, or nighttime.

Kangaroos also have behaviors that help cool them during the day. For example, they use their saliva to lower their body temperature by licking their forearms.


20. Desert Tortoise

desert tortoise by Joshua Tree National Park via Flickr

Scientific name: Gopherus agassizii

Desert tortoises live in the Mojave Desert, to the north and west of the Colorado River. They spend over 90% of their time underground to escape the desert heat and remain hydrated. They can also survive below freezing temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

These animals can last up to a year without water. When they find water, they store it in their bladder to reabsorb when needed and increase their body weight up to 40%.


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