What is a Desert?

Desert Habitats

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Desert Habitats

Take a video field trip to some of the driest regions on Earth to learn how different plants and animals adapt to little rainfall and extremes in temperature. Discover how different animals find food, water, and shelter. See the characteristics that allow desert life to thrive. Discover how rainfall and differences in temperature between day and night affect life in the desert.

Take a video field trip to some of the driest regions on Earth to learn how different plants and animals adapt to little rainfall and extremes in temperature.

  1. Students will understand that a habitat is a place where plants and animals naturally live, which provides food, water, and shelter.
  2. Students will know the main characteristics of all desert habitats.
    1. A desert is an area that receives less than ten inches of rain a year. This lack of precipitation causes all deserts to be very dry.
    2. Deserts have extremes in temperature.
    3. The organisms that live in deserts are well adapted to their environment.
    4. Students will understand why desert air temperatures become warm and cold. The sun sends out light energy, which is absorbed and changed into heat by the earth and other objects in the desert. The heat moves from the warmer objects to the cooler air, thus heating the air. When the sun no longer shines on the desert, everything in the desert cools.
    5. Students will understand the water cycle and how it relates to the desert climate.
      1. Wind and heat causes water to evaporate into the air.
      2. The water vapor travels high into the atmosphere where it cools.
      3. The vapor condenses into water droplets, forming a cloud.
      4. Finally, the water in the clouds precipitates as rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Precipitation usually occurs all at once in the desert.
    6. Students will realize that the torrents of rain that fall in the deserts are responsible for the erosion of the land. A wash is a river that is made by fast flowing water that cuts into the soil.
    7. Students will understand that some deserts have an oasis where water is available year-round form a wash or an underground spring. The presence of water causes large concentrations of plants and animals to live around an oasis.
    8. Students will know some of the adaptations made by desert plants that allow them to survive in the dry environment.
      1. In order to avoid competition for water, desert plants do not grow near each other.
      2. Desert plants have modified root systems that allow them to obtain the scarce water. Some plants have a long taproot that searches for water deep down into the earth. Other plants, like most cacti, have shallow roots that spread out all over the ground and collect water from a wide area.
      3. Many desert plants have to store water for use until the next rainy season. Cacti store water in their stems and yucca plants store water their roots.
      4. Desert plants must have adaptations that prevent water from escaping into the dry air. These adaptations include thorns, which trap moisture, provide shade, and create a space of still air around the plant; leaves that are tough, leathery, and coated with oil; short hairs that trap water; and leaves that fall from the plant when water is no longer available.
      5. Many plant species, called ephemerals, have a life cycle that is conducive to the parched climate of the desert. Their seeds can last for years until there is water available. Then they quickly grow and die, spreading more seeds.
    9. Students will recognize some of the adaptations made by desert animals that allow them to survive in desert.
      1. During the day, many desert animals must seek cool shade. Many sleep through the heat of the day in borrows or in caves. Some animals have thick, scaly skin or feathers, which insulate them from cold and heat.
      2. Many animals get their water from eating plants. Others obtain water from eating insects and bigger animals. Insects acquire water from the dew that forms on plants and on the ground. Other animals may have to find a puddle.
    10. Students will understand the unique characteristics of each type of desert.
      1. High Deserts — These deserts have an elevation of 3000-5000 feet above sea level. They contain steep rocky hills, which do not allow for much plant life. A rocky desert may have flat areas. The Great Basin is an excellent example of a high desert that is flat.
      2. Sandy deserts — These deserts, which include the Sahara Desert (the largest desert in the world), are usually hot and are covered with sand. Wind forms sand dunes, which cover the sandy desert landscape. Plants found in sandy deserts usually do not last long because of the moving sand.
      3. Valley Deserts — This type of desert, which includes Death Valley, is thought to be the result of a lake that evaporated leaving behind a dry lakebed. Valley deserts are surrounded by mountains, usually below sea level, and normally have very hot temperatures, resulting in little life.

  1. Write the things that make a desert habitat special. Compare notes and review the first part of the video.
  2. Draw a picture of the desert plant that is most interesting. Write a sentence telling how this plant has adapted to desert life.
  3. Do the same for a desert animal. Tell what is interesting about it and how it has adapted to its environment.
  4. Look in the weather section of a local newspaper. Find the amount of rainfall in inches for the season. Compare this amount to the typical less than ten inches that fall in the desert during a year. Is your community a desert?
  5. Discuss the four main kinds of deserts: high desert, Great Basin desert, sandy desert, and valley desert. Note special things about deserts in general and about each particular desert. Draw a picture of the most interesting desert.
  6. Make a model desert. Use materials like sand, dirt, rocks, and small cacti. Models of the plants and animals found in the desert can be made using clay or cardboard. Each student may tell about his or her desert and put it on display.

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