Desert habitats

What are desert habitats?

Desert habitats are the homes that animals have made for themselves in deserts. Deserts are places that don’t get much rain, and are very dry. They can be either hot places, or cold places.

Because deserts don’t have much water, animals that live in the desert are able to conserve water and keep their body temperature at the right level. Both plants and animals have adapted to be able to live in the desert.

Top 10 facts

  1. Land is called ‘desert’ if it gets less than 250mm of rain every year.
  2. One-third of the land on Earth is covered in deserts!
  3. Deserts can be in hot or cold places.
  4. The largest hot desert in the world is the Sahara Desert in Africa – it is 9.4 million square kilometres.
  5. One of the largest cold desert in the world (the Arctic deserts are the largest) is the Gobi Desert in China, which is 1.3 million square kilometres.
  6. Even though deserts don’t get much rain, it is a habitat for some plants and animals. Each species has adapted to be able to live in a range of temperatures, and without much water.
  7. Temperatures in hot deserts can be up to 40-45°C, and it cools down a lot at nights when the sun sets. It can even get as cold as 0°C at some times during the year.
  8. In cold deserts, temperatures won’t be as high as in hot deserts, but they will drop below 0°C during the winter.
  9. In deserts, you’ll usually see a lot of open soil and rocks, and not much grass or other kinds of plants.
  10. Animals that live in deserts include lizards, geckos, toads, jackrabbits, camels, snakes, spiders and meerkats.

Did you know?

  • Deserts get less than 250mm of rain every year. We get around 1,000-2,000mm of rain in the UK, so 250mm really isn’t very much at all!
  • If you put together all the deserts on the Earth, it makes up around 33% of the Earth’s surface.
  • Depending on where on the Earth it is, a desert can be classed as hot or cold. Hot deserts can get very, very hot during the day and especially during the summer, while cold deserts can get extremely cold in the winter. Animals who live in each kind of desert have what they need to handle either very hot or very cold weather.
  • The largest hot desert in the world is the Sahara Desert in Africa, and the largest (non-Arctic) cold desert is the Gobi Desert in China. Both the word ‘sahara’ and ‘gobi’ mean desert in the local languages, so they both really have the same name – Desert Desert!
  • The driest desert is the Atacama Desert in Chile. It only gets 1mm of rain in an entire year!
  • The most common thing you think of deserts having is sand, but deserts sometimes have gravel, large rocks, salt and grass.
  • While beaches do have sand, it doesn’t make them deserts. It is a different kind of habitat.
  • Plants and animals that live in the desert have had to adapt to the conditions there. This means they either don’t need much water to stay alive or can conserve water very well, and that they can handle very hot and/or very cold temperatures.

Look through the gallery below and see if you can spot these different desert features:

  • A map showing where you’ll find deserts around the world – the darker the orange, the drier the land
  • The Sahara Desert
  • The Gobi Desert
  • Prickly pear cactus
  • Barrel cactus
  • Elephant tree
  • Palm tree
  • Sagebrush
  • A diagram showing the food chain in desert habitats – what eats what!
  • Scorpion
  • Dromedary camel
  • Bactrian camel
  • Bobcat
  • Fennec fox
  • Gila monster
  • Iguana



Desert temperatures can be very extreme – hot deserts can be as hot as 40-45°C, but then cool down as far as 0°C at night. This is because there’s nothing on the dry land (like tall trees) that can protect it from heating up when the sun is shining, and cooling right down when the sun sets.

Rain and snow can fall on deserts, and when it does it’s usually in a very heavy storm. It can rain so much all at once in a desert that it can cause a flood.

The terrain you’ll find in both hot and cold deserts includes:

  • Sand
  • Sand dunes
  • Salt basins
  • Gravel
  • Rocky cliffs
  • Plateaus

Plants that grow in deserts include:

  • barrel cactus
  • camel thorn tree
  • elephant tree
  • Joshua tree
  • sagebrush
  • organ pipe cactus
  • palm tree
  • prickly pear cactus
  • saguaro cactus

Animals that live in deserts include:

  • Bactrian camel (has two humps, like a sideways ‘B’)
  • bat
  • black widow spider
  • bighorn sheep
  • bobcat
  • dromedary camel (has one hump, like a sideways ‘D’)
  • quail
  • fennec fox
  • gecko
  • gerbil
  • gila monster
  • iguana
  • jack rabbit
  • kangaroo rat
  • llama
  • rattlesnake
  • roadrunner
  • scorpion
  • tarantula
  • vulture
  • wolf spider

Words to know:

  • Arid – a way to describe the dry climate in places like deserts, where there isn’t much access to water
  • Desert – an area that gets less than 250mm of rainfall every year
  • Dunes – large piles of sand that look like hills; this happens because of wind or water moving the sand around
  • Oasis – a spot in a desert where water and plants can be found (often around a natural spring)

Related Videos

Just for fun...

Write a poem about desert habitats, with each line starting with the next letter in the word ‘desert’:

Can you find all the words in this cactus wordsearch?

Which animals belong in the desert, and which don’t?

Children's books about desert habitats


Find out more

Links to facts about desert habitats and environments around the world

See a list of the largest deserts around the world (with size and topography details for each one) and of the world's coldest deserts

Facts about desert animals

See BBC Nature videos of deserts and dry scrublands and their inhabitants

Why are deserts so dangerous? Find out what happens to the human body in a desert environment

Find out more about desert plants and the people who live in desert environments

See for yourself

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