Ask A Scientist

If you bring an animal from the desert to here would it live?

Asked by: Baylee Burghardt
School: Vestal Hills Elementary School
Grade: 5
Teacher: Mrs. Bogart
Hobbies/Interests: Basketball, field hockey, lacrosse
Career Interest: teacher or a physical education teacher

Answer from Dylan Horvath

Steward of Natural Areas, Binghamton University

Research area: Wildlife biology/ecology-wolverines, bats, salamanders and birds. Interests/hobbies: Drawing, photography singing and hiking. Web page address:

One of the most wonderful aspects of Earth is the amazing variety of life that has evolved in so many different environments.  Deserts are no exception as they are full of life and there are many different kinds of desert. Most plants and animals have evolved certain characteristics which allow them to survive in the environment that they live in.  In other words, they have adapted to their habitats.  Some animals can survive in a substantial range of conditions, but in extreme environments like deserts, many animals become very specifically adapted.  Unfortunately, without help, the likelihood of survival of any one animal taken from the desert and placed in the wild in NY would be low.

Many organisms, from plants to animals to microbes, are transported around the world practically everyday.  Transportation can be intentional such as animal smuggling or it can be by accident. Either way, when an animal is transferred from its original environment to another, one of three things happens: it doesn’t survive, it lives well in a harmless way, or it becomes a problem.

Most animals don’t survive being brought to a new environment for more reasons than I can describe in this short answer.  Sometimes they are too specialized in the range of conditions, such as temperature or rainfall, in which they can tolerate.  Ecologists call these types of non-living environmental conditions “abiotic factors”.  Many desert species such as desert spiny lizards, certain beetles and scorpions, and the Desert Toad, would not survive the lengthy freeze of northern winters.  Unlivable conditions in transportation, captivity, and release are why the majority of exotic animals don’t survive the exotic pet trade.

Some animals can physically survive in a wide range of abiotic conditions, but would run into trouble from other living organisms or what scientists call “biotic” factors.  Coyotes can survive in a wide range of environments, but an individual coyote brought from a western U.S. desert would not be able to survive competition with larger eastern coyotes, exposure to different strains of disease causing microbes, or the increased dangers from a larger human population.  Adaptable animals like coyotes have expanded their range and habitats, but they need to do it on their own and at their own pace in order to survive. 

So, if an animal brought from a desert survives both the climate and interactions with other animals, it may become integrated into the new habitat or naturalized without harming the new environment.  However, plants and animals brought from one part of the world to another sometimes become an “invasive species.”  An invasive species harms the habitat in which the species has been introduced.  This is why the release of pets, especially exotic pets, “into the wild” is a big problem.  One example is the release of Burmese pythons in Florida where the snakes are decreasing native animal populations-- by eating them.  Desert animals don’t often become invasive species, but, amazingly, animals released in deserts can cause problems like the population explosion of European rabbits in Australia.

Finally, this brings me to why the broader implications of your question are so important.  Animals and their interactions with their habitat are part of what we call ecosystems which have functions that scientists call ecosystem services. Examples of ecosystem services are regulating local climate, cycling nutrients and water, and fertilizing soil.  The fact that so many animals can only survive in their native habitats, such as deserts, highlights the importance of conserving the variety of ecosystems which exist as well as leaving those animals in their own environments to continue the healthy function of their ecosystems. 

Last Updated: 3/1/17