Chile’s Atacama Desert runs for 600 miles along the Pacific Coast, with the Andes Mountains as its eastern border. Some parts of the desert have never recorded precipitation and are so arid that no plant or animal life can survive. On some small hills or formations called lomas, though, fog from the ocean provides enough moisture for seasonal plants and a few animal species.
Birds are probably the largest animal group in the Atacama. Humboldt penguins live year-round along the coast, nesting in desert cliffs overlooking the ocean. On salt flats both near the Pacific and inland, Andean flamingos flock to eat algae. Other birds -- including species of hummingbirds and sparrows -- visit the lomas seasonally to feed on insects, nectar, seeds and flowers. The lomas help sustain several threatened species, such as the tamarugo conebill, the Chilean woodstar and the slender-billed finch. When flowers are in bloom, the lomas’ ecosystems even support birds of prey, such as burrowing owls and chimango caracaras.
Because of the desert’s extreme aridity, only a few specially adapted mammal species live in the Atacama. Darwin’s leaf-eared mouse eats grass, insects and seeds. The South American gray fox, also omnivorous, lives on eggs, fruit, lizards, rodents, seeds and even scorpions. The viscacha, a relative of the chinchilla, also lives in parts of the desert. Larger animals, such as guanacos and vicunas -- both relatives of llamas -- graze in areas where grass grows, irrigated by melted snow. Vicunas need to remain near a steady water supply, while guanacos can roam into more arid areas and survive longer without fresh water. Fur seals and sea lions often gather along the coast.
The Atacama Desert has surprisingly few reptile and amphibian species. The Vallenar toad lives on the lomas, where it lays eggs in permanent ponds or streams. Iguanas and lava lizards inhabit parts of the desert, while salt flat lizards live in the dry areas bordering the ocean.
Many parts of the Atacama Desert are too dry to sustain even insect life. In other areas, sand-colored grasshoppers blend with pebbles on the desert floor. Beetles and their larvae provide a valuable food source in the lomas. Desert wasps sometimes prey on other insects. During especially warm, humid seasons, butterflies visit the lomas. Red scorpions also live in the desert, where their color helps conceal them from predators such as gray foxes.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog: Life in the Arid Atacama
- The Encyclopedia of Earth: Deserts: Atacama Desert
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Vicugna Vicugna -- Vicuna
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology: Animal Diversity Web: Lama Guanicoe: Guanaco
- AtacamaPhoto: Atacama Fauna
- Andean Botanical Information System: Deserts of Coastal Peru and Northern Chile
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images