A Desert Lizard That Drinks From Sand

Nov 6, 2016

By Ed Yong

It’s early morning in the Australian desert, and a squat, palm-sized lizard called the thorny devil is having a drink. It hasn’t rained for weeks, and there’s no water in sight. The lizard’s body is still and its head is raised. And yet, through almost no effort, it is quenching its thirst.Its secret lies in its extraordinary skin. Between the intimidating and ostentatious spikes, there’s a subtle network of microscopic grooves. These can yank water out of moist sand, drawing the fluid up against the pull of gravity, across the lizard’s body, and into its waiting mouth. All it needs to do is to stand in the right spot and without flexing a muscle, it can drink with its skin.

Though long known to Aboriginal Australians, the lizard was first described by Western zoologists in 1841. Its fearsome appearance earned it sinister names—the thorny devil, or Moloch horridus. In truth, the creature eats only ants, and otherwise moves slowly and placidly. “They’re like Swiss people—very relaxed,” says Philippe Comanns, from RWTH Aachen University.


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6 comments on “A Desert Lizard That Drinks From Sand

  • Olgun #1
    Nov 7, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Nature is red in tooth and claw!

    In the earlier Attenborough series, baby turtles were eaten alive by Night Herons and crabs, while in another programme, seabird chicks were swallowed whole by pelicans.

    Some species lay large numbers of eggs and take heavy losses.



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  • Absolutely Alan. I was interested in the way they hunted though. It was a ‘pack’ and also individual in appearance. It made me look again at how lions hunt and bring down their prey. It makes me think differently about pack hunting and how it came about.



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  • Olgun #3
    Nov 7, 2016 at 11:38 am

    It makes me think differently about pack hunting and how it came about.

    There is fossil evidence that some predatory Dinosaurs hunted in packs.

    Constricting snakes have probably been hunting amphibians, lizards, birds, and other reptiles, since before mammals existed.

    The Galapagos situation, probably gives more opportunity than some places, because of the limited routes from the breeding sites to the sea.



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  • 5
    bonnie2 says:

    @ #1

    Interesting, don’t recall ever hearing about Galápagos snakes, they’re not immune from invasive species.

    makes me think differently about pack hunting

    Makes me think about the differences betwixt humans, and the rest of the animal kingdom, e.g. ‘The Veldt’ story.



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  • @OP – The lizard’s body is still and its head is raised. And yet, through almost no effort, it is quenching its thirst.Its secret lies in its extraordinary skin. Between the intimidating and ostentatious spikes, there’s a subtle network of microscopic grooves. These can yank water out of moist sand, drawing the fluid up against the pull of gravity, across the lizard’s body, and into its waiting mouth.

    In extreme arid environments, there are various methods of acquiring water where there is no open water available.

    In both the Atacama and in Namibia, various plants and insects collect condensation from sea mists, and drain it to mouths or areas where they can absorb it.



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