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Flora and Fauna in the Hot Wastelands
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Flora and Fauna in the Hot Wastelands

Creating plant and animal life appropriate for desert areas, is radically different to creating it for most terrain. You have to take into account the effects of the environment, not just on animal behaviour, but also on the way the species has adapted to the environment. A Bengal tiger prowling the sand dunes is simply not believable. Most people realise that, but when you change from animals to plants, it seems most do not realise that, and we have forests of broad-leafed trees gathered around a hot desert oasis.

The lessons learned herein can be applied to any environment, and boil down to : When designing plant and animal life, take into account the environment they have to live in.

Hot Desert Plants

All plants make their own food from light, soil minerals and water. All three are necessary in order to metabolise food.

In a hot desert, it is obviously, hot. This means water is going to be scarce and therefore precious. Once you have some, you are going to hold onto just as tightly as you can.

Desert plants are divided into two categories.

The first category only lives for a day at most.

Desert flowers exist, whose only function in life is to grow as swiftly as possible, mature thousands of seeds, and scatter them to the sand and wind. Their design reflects their environment even so. All desert flowers have thin leaves, compromising on reducing the surface area as much as possible, whist keeping enough surface area to capture the sunlight. It is not unusual for desert flowers to have extremely prickly, spiky leaves to discourage attempts to eat them. If you only have one day to produce offspring, survival is paramount.

Desert flowers only show up after a heavy rain. Their seeds have a hard outer shell which requires immersion in large amounts of water to soften and dissolve - a brief shower won't do it. This evolutionary adaption allows them to sit dormant in sandy soil or even pure sand, for years or decades, awaiting one savage downpour that will set them growing, and guarantee enough water for them to work.

After they have seeded, the plants soon wither in the unforgiving sunlight. Leaves bake and shrivel, flowers droop and disintegrate. Small leaves are still leaves, and the sun will quickly extract every drop of moisture from the plants through them.

This is why broad-leafed plants in the desert would never work. Even the most mighty tree would soon die, as the larger the leaf surface area, the more water it loses.

The second category is a radically different kind of plant, and keeps growing year in year out.

The succulent plants as they are collectively known, due to a hard outer shell protecting a watery, gooey succulent core. These are the true flora of the hot desert. The best known is the cactus, but there are many other types too. All share one aspect in common: no leaves.

Instead, the plants photosynthesise directly through chlorophyll in their stems, covering every square inch of surface area. The stems are thick and swollen, with water being stored there rather than in the underground roots. Sometimes the stems split off like seed pods, attached to the plant at the base, but swelling and pulling out as they fill with water.

These roots sweep out underground, seeking any source of water. When they find such, they act as one-way valves, sucking it up into the plant.

Finally, the plants all without exception, grow spines from their stems, covering the outside of the plant in a hard, prickly shell. This makes it very difficult for water-seeking animals to open the plant to steal its water store. As an added effect, the spines trap any wind flowing around the plant, wrapping it in a bundle of air, helping it retain moisture rather than sweating it out.

Hot Desert Wildlife

Even the hottest, most sandy, rocky, barren desert has life on it, providing the planet has life elsewhere. It may surprise you to know that insects are everywhere in the desert. They feed happily on live and dead plants alike. Approach any plant in the desert, and you will find crawling insects over their surface.

Desert animals, tend to prey on these insects, and upon each other if they have to.

All desert animals, large and small, must be able to function with very little water, taking great care with what they have. Typically this means body designs that either do not sweat, or sweat very very little.

Desert animals other than insects are typically divided into three categories:

Reptiles

Reptiles, being cold-blooded, use the desert heat to regulate their body temperature. During the hottest part of the day, they burrow under rocks, or hide in crevices or other creature's burrows. The reptile types are normally snakes and small lizards. Both need to kill their prey quickly, and with very little effort, so they tend to be extremely venomous.

Small Mammals

Mammals are warm-blooded, able to regulate their own body temperature. This means they cannot put up with the warm sun as long as the reptiles can, because they have their own heat to contend with as well. Sweating in the desert is a really bad idea, and so all desert mammals live in burrows. Plant eaters, insect eaters, and predators alike. All are almost exclusively nocturnal, hunting when the sun goes down.

Birds

Birds have the easiest time of it. Buzzards circling is a common metaphor for hot desert. The act of flight rushes air over the bird's feathers, cooling them. High rocky crags provide shelter, and long-distance scout perches.

Some birds can even alight on cactus-like plants, and grasping the spines with their talons, secure themselves in place whilst pecking at the hard outer shell, carving a home inside the plant's water containers.

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