Animals at the extremes: The desert environment
Animals at the extremes: The desert environment

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Animals at the extremes: The desert environment

2.5 Behavioural strategies of endurers

Endurers are defined as large desert mammals such as oryx and camel, and large desert birds, ostrich and emu. The term ‘endurers’ suggests that these animals are forced to endure the extreme conditions of the desert climate because they cannot shelter from high T a and intense solar radiation during the day or low T a at night, as they are too large to hide in burrows or dens. Nevertheless, in spite of their size, endurers do take advantage of aspects of the environment for cooling by means of behavioural strategies. Large mammals tend to be inactive during the hottest part of the day, thereby reducing metabolic heat production. The Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx; Figure 5 in Section 1.1) lives in the Arabian desert, including areas where free-standing water is rarely if ever available. On hot days oryx dig into the sand with their hooves, exposing the cool sand below the surface, and sit in the depressions. Body heat is lost to the cooler sand by conduction. Where possible, the oryx also spends time sitting in the shade of evergreen trees (Maerua crassifolia) during the hottest part of the day. Oryx forage at night during the summer, avoiding exposure to high T a and intense solar radiation. They feed on grasses and rely on the water content of the plants for their intake of water.

Dorcas gazelle (Gazella dorcas; Figure 4 in Section 1.1) live at the borders of the Sahara desert and are the smallest species of gazelle, weighing just 15–20 kg. They have very long limbs in proportion to their body size, and large ears: both features maximise any convective cooling caused by breezes. Dorcas are described as the most desert-adapted of all gazelles, as like the oryx, they are reputed to be able to survive without drinking any water at all. Their feet are splayed, an adaptation for walking and running on sand. Dorcas gazelle graze and browse at night and at dawn and dusk, feeding on leaves, flowers and pods of acacia trees, and using their hooves to dig for bulbs.

Long limbs, tails or necks provide large surface areas from which heat can be dissipated, and behaviour patterns may maximise loss of heat from these areas. The ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the largest living bird, weighing up to 150 kg. Ostriches forage during the day. The birds select plants with high water content when grazing, especially during times of water shortage. The naked neck of the ostrich and its long naked legs provide a large surface area for convective and radiative cooling, especially in breezy conditions. The ostrich uses behaviour to enhance the cooling effects of feather erection at a high ambient temperature and incident solar radiation. Sparsely distributed long feathers on the dorsal surface of the bird erect in response to warming of the skin, thereby increasing the thickness of the insulation between solar radiation and skin. The gaps between the feathers allow through air movements, which cool the skin by convection. The birds supplement the physiological response during the hottest part of the day by orientating themselves towards the Sun and bowing out their wings away from the thorax, forming an ‘umbrella’ which shades the exposed thorax. The naked skin of the thorax acts as a surface for heat loss by both radiation and convection. At night when ambient temperatures plummet, ostriches conserve heat by folding the wings close to the thorax and tucking the naked legs under the body while they sit on the ground. The dorsal feathers respond to low T a by flattening and interlocking, which traps an insulating layer of air next to the skin, and keeps most of the skin at 34.5°C.

Evaporative water loss is the most effective means of reducing body temperature during heat stress. However, in deserts, very little, if any, free-standing water is available. For all groups of desert vertebrates, behavioural strategies for maintaining T b play a crucial role in preventing overheating of the body, which reduces the need for evaporative cooling and thereby conserves water. In the following section, we will see how in desert vertebrates, behavioural strategies for controlling body temperature are integrated closely with biochemical and physiological mechanisms.

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