Deserts Background Information for Teachers and Families

Grade Levels: K-3

This page contains information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about desert habitats.  The information is designed to complement the BrainPOP Jr. movie Desert. It explains the type of content covered in the movie, provides ideas for how teachers and parents can develop related understandings, and suggests how other BrainPOP Jr. resources can be used to scaffold and extend student learning.

A desert is an area of land that receives very little precipitation—less than 10 inches a year. Deserts make up about one-fifth of Earth’s land and consist mostly of sand, rock formations, and little vegetation. This movie will explore desert habitats and include information about how they are changing today.

Because of the dry conditions and extreme temperatures of most deserts, plant and animals have developed special adaptations to survive. Some species of desert perennials lie dormant until more water is available. Plants such as cacti and yucca store water in their thick stems and have no leaves in order to prevent evaporation. Instead they have needles and spines, which protect the plants from animals that seek water. Joshua trees have thick bark to protect themselves against animals. These trees also have thin, waxy leaves that look like spikes. The thin leaves and the waxy coating prevent evaporation. Other plants, like saltbush and rice grass, have stems with corrugated surfaces, which swell when water is available and slowly contract again as the water is absorbed by the plant. Some desert plants have shallow root systems that can quickly absorb dew and rainwater that seep into the ground. However, desert plants that live near the water table have very long roots that grow deep underground. Most desert plants grow far apart from each other so they do not compete for water.

Desert animals have also adapted to survive in their habitats. Insects can move around twigs to avoid direct light, and jackrabbits also follow the shifting shadows of cactus plants. For the most part, the desert is inhabited by smaller animals whose size makes it easier to find shady hiding places. Most animals protect themselves from the heat by burrowing underground or resting between rocks. Some birds such as the Gila woodpecker build homes inside cacti. Many desert animals rest and conserve energy during the day and are active when the weather becomes cooler. Nocturnal animals in the desert include mice, skunks, foxes, and some species of snakes. Some animals such as rattlesnakes and Gila monsters are crepuscular, which means they are active at dawn and dusk. Birds that are active during the day will spend a large amount of time in the shade.

Desert animals also have physiological adaptations to live in their environment. Foxes and desert rabbits dissipate heat through their large ears. Many desert rodents have special organs in the nasal cavity that capture moisture when they exhale. The specialized kidneys of some desert animals extract most of the water from their urine.

Deserts all over the world are being threatened due to an ever-increasing human population and land development. Organizations and governments are working to protect this vital landscape by setting aside reserves and increasing public awareness. Conserving water and minimizing pollution are two simple ways people can protect the desert.