Strange Animals Thrive in Harsh Conditions

Many of the most unique and specially adapted creatures of the Arabian Desert have already disappeared or cling to a rootlet of survival. One remarkable creature that has vanished from most of the desert is the ferocious honey badger, a 10-inch-long (250 mm), 25-pound (11 kg) mass of muscle and aggression also known as the ratel. Armed with a thick skull, powerful muscles, and massive claws used for digging and excavating, the ratel has loose skin around its neck so thick that even leopards have a hard time biting through. The ratels have a nasty habit of charging and trying to rip out the groin of their opponents, which has enabled them to kill even adult buffalo, wildebeest, and waterbuck. They have reportedly chased young lions away from their kills and are thought to be immune to many varieties of snake venom.

Ratels will eat anything they can catch, but are especially fond of bees and honey. They have formed a strange partnership with small birds called honeyguides. These birds flit up to ratels and get their attention by singing and flashing a bold display with white marking on their wings. The bird will then lead the ratel to a beehive, as the ratel answers the bird's distinctive song with a low growl. Once the ratel reaches the hive, he sprays it with a suffocating secretion from his anus gland, which causes the bees outside the hive to flee and stuns or kills those remaining inside. The ratel then breaks open the hive and devours the honey and the dead bees. The honeyguide waits his turn impatiently, then flits in and dines on dead and stunned bees.

Another remarkable but endangered creature of the Arabian Desert is the Arabian oryx, a white antelope with striking black markings on its face and dark legs. The oryx may have given rise to the myth of the unicorn, since its long, twin, gently-curving horns often look like a single horn from the side. Once abundant throughout the Arabian Peninsula, hunters wiped them out in the decades after the introduction of guns and cars that could cross the vast expanse of sand. A few survivors retreated into the Empty Quarter, where they somehow survived in a place too wild and harsh for hunters. Before hunters turned them into trophies, the oryx had spawned generations of myth and legend. That started with a 13th-century account by a Frenchman of the legend of the unicorn and the virgin. The supposedly fierce unicorn could not be captured unless it laid its head in the lap of a virgin. Arab poets also wrote many poems comparing the grace of the oryx to a beautiful woman. The Bedouin believed that in capturing or killing an oryx they could claim its qualities of strength and endurance.

In fact, the exquisitely adapted oryx can live for years without drinking, gleaning all the moisture it needs from the plants it eats and from nibbling at plants graced by early morning dew. The oryx has an astonishing ability to extract every last molecule of water from its food and then endlessly recycle that water through its kidneys. The oryx thrives on tough, dry plants, even many with defensive chemicals that deter most other animals. When it does rain, the oryx can somehow sense the storm when it is still over the horizon and move quickly to intercept its path.

The oryx had disappeared from the wild by 1972. Fortunately, a few animals survived in captivity and the Phoenix Zoo and others undertook a captive breeding program. As a result, a small herd has now been released back into the wild.

It seems fitting to make such an effort to return one of the most brilliantly adapted creatures to this great desert. After all, the hard lessons of these desert sands gave rise to Western civilization, so it seems only fair we should give the oryx back.