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Introduction to ecosystems
Introduction to ecosystems

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Burrows provide important microenvironments for many desert evaders, and their structure and use vary between species. The desert tortoise (Xerobates agassizii) lives in deserts in the USA and Mexico, and feeds on annual herbs, cacti and shrubs, obtaining most of its water from the plants.

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Figure 12 The desert tortoise (Xerobates agassizii)

In the Mojave desert, the tortoises live in sandy areas as well as rocky hillsides, including scrub-type vegetation, Joshua tree/yucca and creosote bush/ocatillo habitats. For the tortoises, burrows are important refuges for thermoregulation, summer aestivation and winter hibernation. Tortoise burrows in the Mojave desert are extensive and can be up to 12 m long; the same burrows are used for many generations, and are shared with other species such as burrowing owls and ground squirrels. Each desert tortoise may use up to 12 burrows in its home range and each burrow is used by different tortoises at different times. For short rest periods during the day tortoises dig shallow depressions, known as pallets, which barely cover the carapace.

Bear in mind that when occupied by a tortoise, a burrow’s relative humidity may rise to 40 per cent because of the tortoise’s water loss by evaporation from the lungs, exposed skin and eyes. Stable Ta and humidity in the burrow protect the tortoise from extremes of high Ta and from winter frosts. It was noticed that tortoises are fussy about the burrow selected for resting. At the end of foraging, tortoises were observed to enter and leave several burrows before settling. Mojave desert tortoises are active between March and June, a time when the winter rains have stimulated the growth of annual plants, providing abundant food for the tortoises. The tortoises begin foraging during the morning but usually by noon they have moved into pallets and burrows to shelter from high Ta. At night, burrows provide shelter from low Ta and also protection from nocturnal predators such as kit foxes and badgers. By the end of June, when surface temperature may reach 60°C, and annual plants have dried up, the tortoises retreat to their deep burrows and aestivate, a behaviour that helps to conserve body water. During aestivation, up to a quarter of the tortoises’ body mass may be water stored in the bladder. Occasionally an aestivating tortoise emerges to drink during summer thunderstorms. In the eastern Mojave desert tortoises are active for most of the summer because there, summer rainstorms provide sufficient new plant growth. For their winter hibernation, tortoises aggregate in the burrows; up to 25 individuals have been found in one burrow. Hibernation lasts from October to the end of February, and during this time Tb of the tortoises is the same temperature as the burrow, around 5–16°C in winter. Note therefore that hibernation in the desert tortoise is not the same physiological process as it is in hibernating mammals . Reptiles do not regulate Tb physiologically during hibernation; Tb is the same as burrow Ta. You will find that in some references, reptile ‘hibernation’ is termed ‘brumation’.

Mammalian desert burrowers

You may be surprised to learn that like desert ectotherms, small desert rodents also depend on burrows for thermoregulation. Merriam’s kangaroo rat (Dipodomys merriami) is a typical evader, living in the Sonoran desert, Arizona, and in Death Valley, California, two of the hottest and driest areas in the Western Hemisphere.

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Figure 13 Merriam's kangaroo rat (Dipodomys merriami)

Individuals live in a maze of burrows, which they defend. They remain in their burrows during the day, and often plug the entrance with soil. At night kangaroo rats emerge from their burrows for just two hours to collect seeds, in particular seeds of the creosote bush, which they push into their cheek pouches, returning at intervals to empty the food into their burrow. In this way, food caches are built up; kangaroo rats always eat inside the burrow, drawing on their food cache. Inside the burrow, the air is cooler and more humid than above the ground, as moisture from respiratory water loss accumulates. Measurements made on similar burrows in the Negev desert, Israel, showed Ta of around 26°C at 1 metre depth for 24 hours per day when ambient temperature above ground ranged from 16–44°C. However, not all small desert animals can burrow.

The desert wood rat (Neotoma lepida) lives in deserts in the southern USA, including Death Valley, California. Wood rats do not burrow but build elaborate houses around the base of cacti or shrubs, amongst a patch of agaves, or beneath a rock outcrop. Wood rat houses can reach huge sizes and their interior is significantly cooler, by about 5°C, than the outside during the heat of the day. Desert wood rats shelter in their houses during the day, and emerge to forage at night, eating creosote bush, cholla, prickly pear cactus and agave.