Desert

If you ask the average person to describe a desert, the response will probably include words such as sand, heat, mirage, oasis, and camels (Fig. 26.7). These are indeed found in some of the world's large deserts that are located in the vicinity of 30° latitude both north and south of the equator, but deserts occur wherever precipitation is consistently low or the soil is too porous to retain water. Most receive less than 12.5 centimeters (5 inches) of rain per year. The low humidity results in wide daily temperature ranges. On a summer day when the temperature has reached over 35°C (95°F), it will generally fall below 15°C (59°F) the same night. The light intensities reach higher peaks in the dry air than they do in areas where atmospheric water vapor filters out some of the sun's rays. Some desert plants have become adapted to these higher light intensities through the evolution of crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) photosynthesis (discussed in Chapter 10), a process by which certain organic acids accumulate in the chlorophyll-containing parts of the plants during the night and are converted to carbon dioxide during the day. This permits much more photosynthesis to take place than would otherwise be possible, since most of the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere is excluded from the plants during the day by the stomata, which remain closed (thereby also retarding water loss).

Other adaptations of desert plants include thick cuticles, water-storage tissues in stems and leaves, leaves with a leathery texture and/or reduced in size, or even a total absence of leaves. In cacti and other succulents without functional leaves, the stems take over the photosynthetic activities of the plants. Desert perennials are adapted to the biome in various ways. Cacti and similar succulents have widespread shallow root systems that can rapidly absorb water from the infrequent rains. The water can then be stored for long periods in the interior of the stems, which are modified for such storage. Other perennials grow from bulbs that are dormant for much of the year. Annuals provide a spectacular display of color and variety, particularly during an occasional season when above-average precipitation has occurred. The seeds of the annuals often germinate after a fall or winter rain, and the plants then grow slowly or remain in a basal circular cluster of leaves (rosette) for several months before producing flowers in the spring. Literally hundreds of different species of desert annuals may occur within a few square kilometers (one or two square miles) of typical desert in the southwestern United States.

Desert animals are adapted, in many instances, to foraging at night when it is cooler. These include various mice and kangaroo rats, snakes (notably rattlesnakes and king snakes), chuckwallas, and lizards (e.g., gila monster). Various thrashers, doves, and flycatchers are included in the bird life.

Desert Flowering Plants
Figure 26.7 A desert community in the southwestern United States.

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