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The living desert – the wildlife of Saudi Arabia

At first glance, Saudi Arabia gives the impression of being a barren, lifeless region.

Lack of rainfall, constantly shifting sand and temperatures that may exceed 50 degrees Celsius make life extremely demanding for living things, and both plants and animals must make special adaptations to survive. For those who are lucky enough to visit the Kingdom, there is a wealth of life to be discovered, from the dense juniper forests of the Asir region, to the large turtle and seabird colonies on the coastal beaches. Even the most remote of sand dunes will, at dawn, reveal a maze of tracks and footprints of the numerous creatures that enjoy the cool of the night.

Plant life

Lack of soil and water, combined with wind, shifting sand and heat, make life tough for plants. Where water is present, growth is luxuriant, such as in the cooler, wetter Asir mountains, where juniper forest mixes with olive trees, jasmine, honeysuckle and roses. Elsewhere, in the hotter regions, date palms flourish where water is more accessible, and in the drier areas, in the open gravel and sandy plains, acacia trees are the most common, specially adapted, with long tap roots that reach down into the ground in search of water.

Other adaptations to the conditions include small leaves to reduce water loss, and thorns to prevent being eaten by camels. In addition to providing a home and food for many birds and insects, plants have been heavily used by man in the past, providing food, building materials and herbal medicines. One of the most amazing things in the natural world is the sight of the desert turning green, almost overnight, as seeds that have lain dormant for years spring to life after a period of rainfall. This often happens in Spring and Saudi families travel into the desert to camp and admire this magical phenomenon.

Did you know?Birds

Over 450 species of birds have been spotted in the Kingdom, but few stay all year round. Arabia acts as a corridor between Asia and Africa, and for ornithologists the best time of year is the spring and autumn when the migration is in full swing, and thousands of birds are on the move. Multi-coloured bee-eaters, huge Egyptian vultures and large numbers of steppe eagles are often seen inland, whilst flamingoes inhabit the coastal shallows. The desert is home to the huge eagle owl, which often nests down old wells, and large colonies of terns inhabit the islands offshore where they are safe from predators.

Mammals

It is possible to travel a long way in Saudi Arabia and think that camels are the only mammals that exist there. You’d be very wrong. Whilst the lack of plant cover means that mammals are few in number, there is a surprising range of different species. Some, such as the Oryx, have been hunted to extinction, and are being carefully re-introduced in well-planned conservation programmes. In remote, rocky areas, where vehicles cannot go, wolves, striped hyenas and even a few leopards are thought to survive.

Elsewhere, gazelles, foxes, honey badgers, porcupine and mongoose are often seen. The desert abounds with small mammals such as gerbils and voles, and in the cooler mountains of the Asir region, baboons and hyrax live in good numbers. In coastal waters it is sometimes possible to see the mysterious dugong, a marine mammal about which little is known.

Reptiles

These are probably the animals best adapted to the harsh conditions, so it is unsurprising that there is a large number of species, including over 100 species of lizards and a staggering 53 species of snakes (this compares with 3 species in the UK!). One of the most well-known snakes in the desert is the cobra, which, together with the horned viper, can be dangerous to people if surprised. In the warm coastal waters, there are several species of sea snakes that are even more dangerous, with powerful venom. Frogs exist in areas where water is present, and lizards are everywhere in Saudi Arabia, often sheltering from the heat by resting in the shade of burrows.

The large, fearsome-looking dhub lizard is a favourite delicacy, and chameleons live in the moist mountains of Asir, using their 30 cm long tongue to catch their prey. Dawn in the sands often reveals the tracks of numerous lizards such as skinks and geckos that have spent the darkness busily feeding on insects and beetles.

Insects

As with most places on the planet, insects are the most numerous animal in Saudi Arabia. Several hundred species of beetle are thought to exist, perhaps the most well-known one being the scarab or dung beetle, usually seen rolling balls of dung across the desert! Other insect inhabitants include the mysterious praying mantis (often hard to see as it doesn’t move very much) colourful butterflies such as the swallowtail and bees, from whom delicious honey is harvested.

However, the award for the most famous insect of the desert must go to the scorpion. There are over thirty species thought to exist in Saudi Arabia, ranging from large black ones, to much smaller, yellow ones that pack a more fearsome sting… seasoned desert explorers always give their boots a good shake in the mornings before putting their feet inside! Another insect that often sends desert explorers running for their tent is the camel spider, known to give a nasty bite, and sometimes growing up to 12 cm across.

It is often easy to find out about a particular animal or plant by typing its name into a search engine. Try typing in ‘camel spider’ and see if the horror stories are true!


mOre To find out more about wildlife in Saudi Arabia:

The wildlife and conservation body in Saudi Arabia:
www.ncwcd.gov.sa/englishmain.htm

Dedicated to the re-introduction of the Arabian Oryx:
www.arabianoryx.com

The ornithological society of the Middle East:
www.osme.org


See also the Adapt and Survive Worksheets in Unit 2


Photographs courtesy of John Smith, www.arabian-oryx.com and www.desertusa.com


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