Can people live in the desert?

Deserts as a habitat

More than just a wasteland

For many, the desert is a desolate place. A place that very few people visit voluntarily.

If you want to get rid of someone, you literally send them "into the desert". When you destroy something, you "devastate" it. "Wüst" also stands for uncivilized and undesigned: "In the beginning the earth was desert and empty ...", this is how the German text translates the beginning of the biblical story of creation.

But the desert is neither lifeless nor empty. Deserts are diverse habitats and are home to astonishingly diverse inhabitants: people, animals and plants.

In extremely arid regions such as the Chilean Atacama Desert or the Namib Desert in southwest Africa, there is almost no precipitation. But even there there is life, in the form of highly specialized survivors such as geckos, snakes or arachnids.

Desert animals: perfectly adapted

Typical desert inhabitants are lizards, snakes, insects and arachnids. But there are also mammals such as jerboa, gerbils, desert foxes and wild camels. They have all adapted optimally to the desert conditions.

Some get by with very little water, others do not need to drink at all. They get water from the food they eat. Camels, on the other hand, can absorb water in large quantities, store it and thus bridge long periods without water.

Most of the desert animals are active in the cooler night. But even during the day it crawls and crawls on and under the desert floor. The special living conditions have led to completely different adaptations.

The pharmacy skink, also called "Sahara fish", lives under the surface of the sand to avoid the burning sun. The palmatogecko in the Namib desert has webbed toes. With them he can walk over loose sand without sinking in.

The ground-brooding Nama grouse, which lives in southern Africa, stands over its nest and shadows the eggs during the hot hours of the day. The West American pocket mouse digs itself deep in the sand and is thus cooled. Desert hares and foxes have huge ears that help them give off heat.

Desert plants

There are two main groups of desert plants: Perennial plants can survive for a long time despite the drought, annual plants develop mainly after rare rainfall. The latter dry up quickly and only leave their seeds in the ground until the next rain.

The so-called succulents belong to the perennial plants. These can store large amounts of water in their organs. In addition, succulents have roots close to the surface in order to be able to absorb as much water as possible during the rare rainfall.

Other plants such as tamarisks, date palms or buffalo grass develop deep roots that reach into the groundwater layers.

Cacti have especially adapted to the drought. They have reduced their leaves to thorns. This reduces their surface area, over which water would otherwise evaporate in strong sunlight.

Spines and side ribs together create a windless space in which the air stands. In the morning, dew drops can form there from the humidity and be absorbed by the plants. Once cacti have absorbed water, the thick outer skin protects them from evaporation.

Living space for humans

Humans also settle in desert areas. However, unlike animals or plants, humans are not physiologically adapted to life in the desert. A naked person is unlikely to survive a day in the Sahara if he has neither shade nor water.

The people who live here have instead adapted their way of life and culture to the inhospitable area. You have learned to deal with water shortages, extreme temperature fluctuations, drought, heat and exposure to sunlight.

During the midday heat they retreat to their tents and dwellings. They dig wells to use the groundwater supply. With the help of camels or vehicles, thanks to their trained sense of direction, they can cover hundreds of kilometers in hostile areas.

Last but not least, they protect themselves from dehydration and solar radiation through their clothing. Adapted behavior and the knowledge of certain techniques are essential prerequisites for survival in the desert.

Different forms of life

In principle, there are three ways of life for desert peoples: nomadism, gathering and hunting, and oasis economy.

Nomadic cattle herders still live in regions where agriculture is impossible. You can get by with the few natural resources on site and move on when they are exhausted. Sparse plant and water resources make sedentary grazing in desert core areas impossible and nomadism is the only alternative.

Camels in particular helped people to colonize the desert regions. Without camels, the deserts would probably have remained uninhabited into modern times. Even today there are still several million domesticated large camels in desert areas around the world.

Arable crops have developed along rivers or in other areas where artificial irrigation is possible. 5000 years ago the ancient Egyptians built dams to irrigate surrounding fields with the water of the Nile.

Where there was sufficient water, significant civilizations could emerge in desert regions, whose cultural achievements - from craft skills and scientific knowledge to philosophy and religion - are of importance to the present day.