Posts Tagged ‘plant’

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Limiting factors in the desert

September 16, 2010

In some ways the term “limiting factor” is almost a definition of deserts, because deserts lack one or more essential ingredients for the survival of most kinds of plants and animals.

First, a desert is, by definition, a place with very little available water, either because there is little rainfall, or because it evaporates so fast. It may also be that most of the precipitation is unavailable because it is frozen most of the year, as in the far north or south, or in some high altitude regions.

Some areas may get bursts of moisture, even flooding, but it is episodic and not dependably available most of the year.

Temperature is another limiting factor. Many deserts get too hot for most organisms. Some deserts near the north and south poles are too cold. And yet others have wide swings in temperature.

Wind is another. There are few trees or shrubs to stop the wind. Desert mountains, river-courses or other sheltered areas may harbor small oases in their wind and sun shadows.

One unusual limiting factor is lack of sunlight. This can occur in deserts near the poles.

Especially interesting are the adaptations that plants and animals have developed to deal with these limiting factors. Many of them are what we talk about here.

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Why does the cactus look like that?

June 16, 2010

The first thing you notice about a cactus is generally the spines. Some have short, nasty little almost invisible fishhooks, some inches-long needles. Then there’s the form of the plant. Most cacti are plump, rounded, often stubby. They tend to be grayish-green in color. And they usually do not have obvious leaves.

Why?

Whenever you come across questions like this, think about the ecosystem where the organism lives. Cacti live in dry climates with a lot of sun, and few other plants, especially leafy ones.

So keeping cool is an issue. A light neutral color does not absorb a huge amount of the sun’s heat. There are very few plants with dark bark, or skins, or leaves in the desert.

Retaining moisture is perhaps the most important issue for a desert plant. The blunt, compact shape of cacti, their thick skins, and lack of leaves are all moisture-conserving features.

And lastly, toothsome, moist leaves would attract all kinds of herbivores. So the lack of leaves discourages plant-eaters, and the big spines and tough hide protect any soft, moist tissue a cactus does have.