Thermoregulatory value of cracking-clay soil shelters for small vertebrates during extreme desert conditions

Helen P. Waudby, Sophie Petit

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Deserts exhibit extreme climatic conditions. Small desert-dwelling vertebrates have physiological and behavioral adaptations to cope with these conditions, including the ability to seek shelter. We investigated the temperature (T) and relative humidity (RH) regulating properties of the soil cracks that characterize the extensive cracking-clay landscapes of arid Australia, and the extent of their use by 2 small marsupial species: fat-tailed and stripe-faced dunnarts (Sminthopsis crassicaudata and Sminthopsis macroura). We measured hourly (over 24-h periods) the T and RH of randomly-selected soil cracks compared to outside conditions, during 2 summers and 2 winters. We tracked 17 dunnarts (8 Sminthopsis crassicaudata and 9 Sminthopsis macroura) to quantify their use of cracks. Cracks consistently moderated microclimate, providing more stable conditions than available from non-crack points, which often displayed comparatively dramatic fluctuations in T and RH. Both dunnart species used crack shelters extensively. Cracks constitute important shelter for small animals during extreme conditions by providing a stable microclimate, which is typically cooler than outside conditions in summer and warmer in winter. Cracks likely play a fundamental sheltering role by sustaining the physiological needs of small mammal populations. Globally, cracking-clay areas are dominated by agricultural land uses, including livestock grazing. Management of these systems should focus not only on vegetation condition, but also on soil integrity, to maintain shelter resources for ground-dwelling fauna.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)237-249
Number of pages13
JournalIntegrative Zoology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2017


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