10 Ways A Desert Can Kill You

By Renee Barrett on April 13 2020 in Environment

Getting lost in the desert can be your worst nightmare coming true.
Getting lost in the desert can be your worst nightmare coming true.
  • Although the daytime temperatures of the desert biome are very hot, they can get very cold at night.
  • The vegetation does not grow very tall so the desert biome can only accommodate small animals, rodents, and reptiles. These animals can escape the harsh Sun by hiding under small scrubs or hiding in burrows.
  • The driest desert on Earth receives on average 1 centimeter of rainfall every 5 to 20 years.
  • Because body fat retains heat, most desert animals have an adaptation that allows them to store all their body fat in one area of their body. The camel stores all its body fat in its hump.

Nature comes in many avatars, each with its unique beauty. With their breathtaking sunrises, spectacular sunsets and black starry nights, deserts are some of the most beautiful environments in the world. They are also home to a multitude of exotic plants and animals. The peace and tranquility of the desert wilderness make them attractive travel destinations. However, looks can be deceiving and there are dangers lurking beyond the horizon. Here are 10 facts about the desert that will help save your life.

10. Buttonbush (Cephalanthus Occidentalis)

Buttonbush -- Cephalanthus occidentalis. Image credit: Jim Evans/Wikimedia.org
Buttonbush -- Cephalanthus occidentalis. Image credit: Jim Evans/Wikimedia.org

The desert is home to some of the most beautiful and exotic plants in the world. However many of the plants found in the desert can also be deadly. Native to California, Arizona, and Texas, Buttonbush is a 10-foot tall tree that produces fragrant white flowers that resemble white pincushions, about 1.5 inches wide. Although waterfowl and mammals eat the plants, they are toxic to humans. The flowers contain a poison called cephalothin and if it is ingested it can cause vomiting, convulsions, and paralysis.  

9. Desert Thorn-Apple (Datura Discolor)

A Datura flower. Image credit: Neelix/Public Domain
A Datura flower. Image credit: Neelix/Public Domain

This flowery, bushy plant appears delicate at first glance but its pretty white trumpet flowers contain toxic tropane alkaloids that are poisonous and can kill if ingested. A member of the deadly nightshade species, desert thorn-apples grow in all four southwestern deserts in  North America in elevations from sea level to 2,500 feet.

8. Killer Bees

Apis mellifera scutellata in Florida. Image credit: Jeffrey W. Lotz/Wikimedia.org
Apis mellifera scutellata in Florida. Image credit: Jeffrey W. Lotz/Wikimedia.org

True to their name, Africanized killer bees will swarm and viciously attack-possibly killing, when their hives are threatened. They are known to respond to innocuous noises such as vibrations or rumblings from vehicles, equipment or pedestrians. Although their venom is no more potent than regular honeybees, they attack in far larger numbers and they will attack their perceived enemies from greater distances. If Africanized killer bees are disturbed, the colonies will remain aggressive for up to 24 hours, attacking people and animals within a range of a quarter of a mile from the hive.

7. Gila Monster

Gila Monster found in Southeastern Arizona. Image credit: Josh Olander/Wikimedia.org
Gila Monster found in Southeastern Arizona. Image credit: Josh Olander/Wikimedia.org

Taking their name from the Gila River Basin in Arizona where they were discovered, the Gila Monster is one of the only venomous lizards in the world. Native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, they are easily identified by the mosaic of pink, orange, and yellow on their black bodies.  Gilas latch onto victims and chew to allow neurotoxins to move through grooves in their teeth and into the open wound. 

6. Arizona Bark Scorpion

An Arizona bark scorpion. Image credit: LoggaWiggler from Pixabay
An Arizona bark scorpion. Image credit: LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

Native to the Sonoran desert, this species of scorpion is also found in western Mexico, the Baja peninsula, and the southwestern United States. Arizona bark scorpions are nocturnal and they climb vertically along walls and other rough surfaces since they have poor eyesight.  As a result of their poor eyesight, they will sting when they are startled. Though they are not typically aggressive, they are the most poisonous scorpion in North America. Their stings can be fatal, and particularly harmful to small children and elderly people. 

5. Ostrich

Image credit: Jop Verduin from Pixabay
Image credit: Jop Verduin from Pixabay

Native to the dry, hot savannas and woodlands of Africa, these seemingly harmless birds can run at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, making it the fastest animal on 2 legs. Ostriches are also one of the most deadly animals in the deserts of Africa. They use their strong legs to attack, especially if their eggs are being threatened. Ostriches can leave mortal wounds with their claws that can grow up to 21 inches long.

4. Sandstorm

Sandstorms can be deadly in the absence of shelter. Image credit: Amazingsdj from Pixabay
Sandstorms can be deadly in the absence of shelter. Image credit: Amazingsdj from Pixabay

Sandstorms, which are large blinding gusts of wind blowing over loose soil or sand, can create visibility issues that can lead to accidents, but they can also cause life-threatening diseases such as dust pneumonia, caused by inhaling large amounts of dust, and silicosis, a condition that develops from overexposure to respirable crystalline silica dust. Silicosis causes scarring of the lungs, which makes breathing difficult and can cause serious health issues that may lead to chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis, and lung cancer.

3. Heatstroke

Image credit: Maridav/Shutterstock.com
Image credit: Maridav/Shutterstock.com

There are three types of heat-related illness that can occur in desert heat. Heat cramps, which are a result of the body losing salt due to excessive sweating, heat exhaustion, which is an increased loss of salt and water and finally, heatstroke. Heatstrokes occur when the body reaches temperatures of over 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), and it cannot cool itself down. During a heat stroke, shock may set in, causing damage to major organs. Even if shock does not occur, an overheated body causes internal organs such as the brain, heart, liver or kidneys to swell leading to internal injury or potentially,  death. 

2. Starvation

In the dry, barren desert, with few plants and fewer animals, food can be difficult to find. Also, there is a potential risk of poisoning from toxic desert plants and wildlife. Not every plant or bug is edible, which makes starvation a potential death risk. 

1. Dehydration

Image credit: Alex Bascuas/Shutterstock.com
Image credit: Alex Bascuas/Shutterstock.com

Water makes up 55-65 percent of the human body.  Deserts, which receive less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year, where the amount of evaporation outweighs the amount of rainfall, dehydration poses a substantial risk of death to humans. While desert animals and plants have adapted to allow for the dry conditions of the desert, humans have not. Without enough water,  the body clings to whatever moisture it can retain.  In severe heat, uncontrollable body temperatures mean vital organs risk overheating and can cause liver or kidney failure. 

Surviving Bites, Stings and Other Desert Dangers

Find a shaded area, sit down and try not to move any affected limbs. Wash the wound with soap and water, or if soap is unavailable, rinse the wound with water.  Elevate any affected areas above the heart.

Never lance, bite or attempt to suck out snake venom or stings, it only works in westerns. Snakebite kits come with extractors, which can be used to remove venom within the first few minutes of being bitten.   With scorpion and spider bites, loosen tight clothing near the bite. Tie a light, constricting band around the affected body part three inches higher than the point of contact. It should be loose enough to fit a finger between the band and skin. 

When in the desert, do not eat plants with milky saps or reds beans-they are toxic. Most importantly, do not go digging in the sand.

Make water a priority, know how and where to locate it in the desert. If it is too hot to travel, build a desert shelter.

Protect your skin from wind and sand by wearing sunglasses and ski-googles. While white reflects sunlight, it reflects body heat right back to your body. Loosely worn black clothing is better to wear in the desert to keep heat away.

To avoid dehydration or heatstroke find shade wherever and whenever possible. 

 Become familiar with desert terrain before travel to prepare as much as possible.

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