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January 1, 2016

The deserts of California (Lead photo, Fig. 1) occupy approximately 38% of California’s landscape (Table 1) and consist of three distinct deserts: the Great Basin Desert, Mojave Desert, and Colorado Desert, the latter of which is a subdivision of the Sonoran Desert (Brown and Lowe 1980). The wide range of climates and geology found within each of these deserts result in very different vegetative communities and ecosystem processes and therefore different ecosystem services. In deserts, extreme conditions such as very high and low temperatures and very low rainfall result in abiotic factors (climate, geology, geomorphology, and soils) controlling the composition and function of ecosystems, including plant and animal distributions. This is in contrast to wetter and milder temperatures found in other ecosystems, where biotic interactions are the dominant driving force. However, despite the harsh conditions in deserts, they are home to a surprisingly large number of plants and animals. Deserts are also places where organisms display a wide array of adaptations to the extremes they encounter, providing some of the best examples of Darwinian selection (MacMahon and Wagner 1985, Ward 2009). Humans have utilized these regions for thousands of years, despite the relatively low productivity and harsh climates of these landscapes. Unlike much of California, most of these desert lands have received little high-intensity use since European settlement, leaving large areas relatively undisturbed. Desert landscapes are being altered, however, by the introduction of fire following the recent invasion of Mediterranean annual grasses. As most native plants are not fire-adapted, they Many do not recover, whereas the non-native grasses flourish. Because desert lands are slow to recover from disturbances, energy exploration and development, recreational use, and urban development will alter these landscapes for many years to come. This chapter provides a brief description of where the different deserts of California are located and their dominant vegetative communities. The abiotic factors that define these deserts and how these factors control vegetation and thus animal distribution among and within the various deserts are examined next. Following this section, ecosystem processes and iconic species of these deserts are discussed, followed by a concluding section on the future of these landscapes. The latter section will be mostly focused on the Mojave Desert, as it is both the largest California desert and also where most of the research on California deserts has occurred.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2016
Title Deserts
Authors Jayne Belnap, Robert H. Webb, Todd C. Esque, Matthew L. Brooks, Lesley A. DeFalco, James A. MacMahon
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Series Title
Series Number
Index ID 70192143
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center