Desert Biomes: Facts, Climate & Locations

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  • 0:02 Desert Biome
  • 0:21 Location of Deserts
  • 1:38 Precipitation & Temperature
  • 2:45 Desert Plants
  • 4:28 Desert Animals
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Cunningham

Margaret has taught many Biology and Environmental Science courses and has Master's degrees in Environmental Science and Education.

This lesson will explore the unique characteristics of a land where water is scarce, the desert biome. In addition, the plants and animals that have adapted to survive in this environment will also be examined.

Desert Biome

Did you know that one-third of the land on Earth is so dry and harsh that only specific plants and animals can survive there? Although this statistic may seem unreal, it is true that one-third of the land on Earth is an extremely dry environment, known as the desert biome.

Typical Desert
Desert

Location of Deserts

The location of deserts is dependent on two factors: latitude and global wind patterns. Most deserts are located between 15' and 35' latitude, both north and south of the equator. In terms of global wind patterns, most deserts are located within the Southeastern and Northeastern trade winds belt. Due to the direction of the wind movement in these regions, the land receives dry air because the moisture is removed before the air gets to the region.

Most deserts are formed because the moisture is removed from the air over the tropical rainforests before traveling to these regions. Deserts can also be created when the air they receive passes over a mountain range first. When the air rises to move over the mountain range, it cools, and the moisture in the air is lost as rain. As a result, when the air gets over the mountain range, it is very dry.

The largest desert on Earth is the Sahara Desert in Africa. This desert stretches over more than ten African countries. In the United States, the largest desert is the Great Basin Desert. The Great Basin Desert is not the type of desert you would normally picture - it's unique because it receives most of its precipitation as snow!

Precipitation & Temperature

Generally, a desert is defined as an area that receives less than 10 inches, or 25 centimeters, of precipitation a year. Although most of us think of deserts as places that do not get much rain, the precipitation received in deserts can be in the form of either rain or snow. Deserts that receive rain as their main form of precipitation are referred to as 'hot' deserts, while deserts that receive snow as their main form of precipitation are 'cold' deserts.

The temperature of a desert is also a defining and unique characteristic. Most deserts are warmer during the day than they are at night, and the difference in temperature is quite drastic. The average daytime temperature is 100°F, while at night the average temperature is 25°F. This large temperature difference is due to low amount of moisture in the desert air. Normally, moisture in the air retains heat and helps regulate temperature. Due to the fact that there is very little moisture in the air, there is nothing to retain the heat created during the day by the sun. As a result, when the sun sets, the heat escapes and the temperature drops.

Desert Plants

The limited amount of rain and the extreme daily fluctuations in temperature make life in the desert very difficult for plants. Despite the challenges plants face in this biome, there are many different types of plants that grow in deserts. Common plant types that are found include cacti, succulents, small shrubs, and grasses.

To tolerate the conditions and increase chances for survival, desert plants have developed special adaptations. Some of the most common adaptations include storing water in the leaves or stems, having few leaves or waxy coverings on the leaves to reduce water loss, and having long tap roots that can penetrate the deep water table. Some plants even go dormant for over half the year and only grow when water becomes available.

One interesting plant that grows in the desert is the giant saguaro cactus. This cactus is unique because it has adapted so well to the desert conditions that it can grow to reach over 20 feet and live for more than 200 years. These cacti are able to survive for so long because of several well-developed adaptations. Giant saguaro cacti have shallow roots, which allow them to soak up rain and dew before it evaporates, and a spongy interior, which can expand to hold more water. They also save energy by growing slowly.

Giant Saguaro Cactus
Cactus

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