Mutualism in Deserts

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Exploring the desert can be an educational experience when looking at plant and animal adaptations.
Exploring the desert can be an educational experience when looking at plant and animal adaptations. (Image: Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

Desert environments are one of the toughest places to sustain life, mainly because of the lack of water throughout much of the year. However, many species have adapted behaviors, characteristics and traits that helped them to flourish in this harsh environment. Mutualism describes a symbiotic relationship where two species benefit from each other's interactions and existence.

About the Desert

Operating under a moisture deficit, deserts lose more moisture and water through evaporation than it receives through precipitation every year. Plant and animal adaptations have allowed life to flourish in desert biomes, although in limited quantities compared with tropical rainforests.

Lichen

According to Marietta College, lichens, which can be found in many biomes around the world in addition to deserts, are associations of fungi and cyanobacteria or algae. The fungi and algae work together in a mutualistic relationship where the fungus obtains sugars from photosynthetic algae and the algae obtains waste products and water from the fungus. Lichen colonies grow on rock formations and are also used by scientists to determine air quality, as an abundance of lichen in an area indicates a high quality of air with few contaminants and pollutants. Desert lichen examples from the Sonoran desert region include the species Niebla turgida, podetiaforma and homalea.

Coyote and the Badger

Although there is no conclusive evidence there are some suggestions that coyotes and badgers have a mutualistic relationship, according to the University of Texas at El Paso. The coyote's sense of smell helps locate prey while the badger is able to dig out its prey from its burrow. However, it's feasible that the coyote is cunning enough to trail the badger while it searches for food, and when it finds it, waits for an opportunity to steal it from the badger.

Birds and Cacti

Another example from the Sonoran desert is the Gila woodpecker, which is known for making nests and pecking holes in the Saguaro cactus. The woodpecker feeds on insects and other parasites that could potentially carry and transmit harmful diseases to the cactus. Additionally, the woodpecker, in tandem with other species that depend on the cactus for survival, spreads pollen from the plant's blossoms helping to pollinate other cacti. The woodpecker benefits by having a home inside the cacti's thick walls, which insulate the woodpecker's home from the hot sun.

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