Arabian oryx live in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet, yet they seem to thrive here.
Arabian oryx are white and reflect the sun’s rays, allowing them to appear invisible over distances of 100 meters. The oryx cools its blood before it goes to the brain using capillaries inside the nose to keep the head cool. They use their long tail as a fly swatter to keep cool, and their hooves have a large surface area that does not absorb too much heat.
Let’s find out more about how Arabian oryx survive in hot, dry, and barren conditions?
Where Do Arabian Oryx Live?
As the name suggests, these large mammals are found in Arab regions. They were once widespread across the Arabian peninsula, but by 1972 they were extinct in the wild. Thanks to various successful breeding and reintroduction programs in the 1980s, there are now populations of Arabian oryx in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
The climate is hot and dry, with summer temperatures reaching 45°C or higher and very little shade. There may be short periods of fog in some areas, such as lowlands and coastal regions, and the morning dew is common.
Rainfall across the peninsula varies, with the driest areas receiving no more than 30-40mm of rain per year. Even the few humid regions along the coast of the Red sea do not expect more than 240mm annual rainfall.
Oryx have a long history with humans. Such is their beauty that many Arabian poets used oryx in their poetry. In many Arabian states, the oryx is the national animal and symbolizes beauty, strength, and survival.
The Arabian oryx is large antelope, weighing approximately 70kg and growing just over 1m or 4ft tall. They have impressive horns that grow backwards from the top of the head, ending in a sharp point. Their horns can grow as long as 30cm, and females typically have longer horns than males.
Even more impressively, Arabian oryx have a lifespan in the wild of 15-20 years! So, how do they survive so long in a harsh desert environment?
Oryx are nomadic animals travelling with the rains to find new vegetation growth. This is vital as the desert regions can experience months of drought and leave herds with no food sources.
They live in herds consisting of a dominant male and several females with their offspring. Two or more packs may join together when conditions are good, forming a larger herd of 20-30 individuals.
This is good for herd protection from predators, especially for the calves. Jackals are the main predator of oryx. They prefer to target calves as the adults can cause serious injury with their long, sharp horns.
Several physical adaptations give the oryx an advantage in surviving in such harsh conditions.
Their coat is almost entirely white, reflecting much of the sun’s rays. Interestingly, the coat does not create glare, so at a distance of 100m or more, oryx can appear invisible.
Their hooves are large and splayed like shovels. This means a larger surface area is in contact with the ground, so they do not absorb as much heat.
Oryx have a long tail, which is bushy towards the end. The tail is often used as a fly swatter to keep flying insects away from the body.
Oryx also have a unique circulation system. When they take a breath, the capillaries inside the nose cool the blood, so the blood that flows to the brain and around the head is cooler than the rest of the body.
Oryx use their horns to fend off predators when they may encounter them. By lowering their head to the ground, the horns point forwards. Most predators are wary of adults and will only attempt to take an adult oryx if they are in a hunting group. A single predator will choose a vulnerable calf.
The lifestyle of the oryx goes a long way toward their success as desert animals. Travelling in herds give some protection from predators, but it also means that when the breeding season arrives, they do not need to travel in search of a mate.
Additionally, staying in one place means the sparse vegetation will not be sufficient to feed the group for more than a few weeks. Travelling provides them access to new grass triggered by short bursts of rainfall. They may occasionally come across a wadi, which is lush during the rainy season, and there are usually trees and large bushes to provide shade from the midday sun.
Where there is little or no shade available, oryx use their large hooves to dig depressions in the sand. By digging, they expose the cooler sand layers that have not been exposed to the sun. Oryx will lay in these cool depressions to relieve the heat and shelter from desert winds and sandstorms.
To ensure they are not exposed during the hottest hours of the day, oryx do most of their travelling and foraging at dawn and dusk. The temperatures are cooler then, and in some regions, there will be condensation on plants and rocks, which provide much-needed water.
Since there are no lakes or rivers in the desert, oryx get water from their food. Oryx’s diet consists of grasses, herbs, roots, tubers, and bulbs. These foods have a high moisture content, so oryx do not need to rely on finding water sources.
While oryx can give birth throughout the year, most births occur between October and April. During these months, the average low temperature is 15°C, and the average high temperature is 25°C, depending on the country and region the herd is in. These conditions are more favourable for newborn calves. Between May and October, daytime temperatures range from 30°C to 50°C. Herds found close to the coast will fare better as the environment is humid and the air temperature cooler thanks to coastal winds.