The desert is the origin of primeval myth — setting of creation stories in cultures from ancient Israel to the American Southwest. Deserts, ancient texts tell us, are places where faith is tested and the spirit is renewed. That profound symbolism draws on an equally profound reality: though they’re the driest places on Earth, deserts spawn miraculous life.

Defined as regions with less than 10 inches of annual rainfall, deserts require tenacity and remarkable adaptations from their inhabitants. Since desert plants and animals have to survive searing drought, high winds, and intense heat or cold, they’ve evolved specific strategies for thriving in a harsh environment. Succulents, for example, begin photosynthesis at night to avoid water loss, and desert tortoises can store enough water to go years without drinking. Kangaroo rats, the Sonoran Desert’s moisture-conservation champions, boast such efficient bodies that they don’t need to drink at all. This kind of specialization makes for extreme diversity, closely intertwining desert flora and fauna in a complex and close-knit web of survival.

But this web, while strong when intact, becomes more vulnerable with each thread that’s broken. Desert vegetation grows painfully slowly, and once disturbed, can take centuries to recover. And because the ecosystems desert animals depend upon are so fragile, entire populations are easily wiped out. With human impacts on deserts increasing exponentially — especially in the American Southwest, which contains some of the country’s fastest-growing cities — wildlife that has lived there for thousands of years is in danger of dying out due to threats like urban sprawl, cattle grazing, mining, dam building, and off-road vehicle use.

The Center works extensively to reduce these threats in all four American deserts: the Great Basin, the Mojave, the Chihuahuan, and the Sonoran. From keeping off-road vehicles off the country’s largest dune system, the Algodones Dunes, to opposing habitat-destroying sprawl in southern Arizona, we’re working to ensure that human activities don’t demolish the desert’s delicate fertility.

Photo of Sonoran desert by steveberardi/Flickr