The Sahara Desert
The Sahara Desert supports a wide variety of both human and animal life that have adapted in unusual ways to this harsh landscape.
The Sahara Desert is a world of extremes. Stretching over 3.5 million square miles and encompassing parts of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan, it is the largest desert on the planet. The Sahara is one of the driest places on earth, and is home to a wild kingdom of animals and humans who have adapted to life in this seemingly bare and lifeless expanse.
The temperature can range from 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the heat of day, to below freezing at night. Travelers have often related their wonder at the speed with which the sand loses its heat once the sun has set. The sand can lose 40 degrees of temperature within an hour. This is because the sand is so dry, and has no moisture to retain the heat or cold.
The Sahara Desert is famous for its dunes, or erg, that can tower 1000 feet into the sky. Few people know, however, that sand dunes make up only 15% of the desert terrain. The majority of the Sahara is flat plains of sand covered with large gravel, or reg. The landscape also contains large stone plateaus (hammada) and rare but lush oases, which are regions watered by underground wells.
Due to its harsh extremes, the Sahara does not seem to sustain a wide variety of animal and plant life. Upon closer inspection, however, it is apparent that this desert teems with life well-suited for a hot and dry existence. The desert is home to foxes, cats, snakes, rats, birds, toads, gazelles, hyena and a wide variety of insects, among others. Because of the lack of water, many species have adapted by staying small in order to subsist on a minimum amount of food and moisture. The Dorcas gazelle, for instance, is the world's smallest gazelle, standing only two feet high at the shoulder. The Fennec fox is also the smallest breed of its kind, and is smaller than a housecat. The Sand cat is also the smallest wild cat in existence, with a size not much larger than that of the Fennec fox.
In addition to staying small, many species of animals have adapted other ways of gaining the precious moisture necessary for life. The Dorcas gazelle can live its entire life without drinking a drop of water, metabolizing moisture from the food it eats. The Jerboa, a small hamster-like animal with large hind legs for jumping, is said to conserve moisture from its own breath as well as the insects and plants upon which it feeds.
Thousands of years ago, the region which is now known as the Sahara was a fertile land, home to elephants, giraffes and lions. As the climate gradually became drier, desertification set in and laid the once-rich land to waste. Although it covers most of North Africa, the Sahara is now home to only 1.5 million people. The main groups of people who call the desert their home are Arabs, Berbers and Tuaregs.
The Arab people came out of the Middle East during the spread of Islam in the 7th century AD. They spread into Africa, attempting to convert the nomadic tribes that had lived there for centuries. Islamic beliefs took hold quickly, thanks to the swift and mighty missionary effort, and remains the region's dominant religion even today. 99% of Saharan people are Muslims.
The Berbers are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of the Atlas Mountains, which border the Sahara to the north in Morocco. They are possibly related to the Celts or the Basques, which settled into regions of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia long ago. Even today, they do not consider themselves Arabs, and fiercely defend and maintain their nomadic heritage and independence.
The Tuareg people are generally considered Berbers who were pushed into the Atlas regions by the spread of Islam. Today, Tuaregs roam mostly through the southern portion of the Sahara, even down into areas of West Africa. Women play a powerful role in Tuareg society and form the center of much of their social life. Women have traditionally owned slaves and property, and have not been required to wear veils covering their faces like other Islamic women in other Saharan societies