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A spring day.

In July, the midday heat in the Gobi Desert is scorching. The hot wind from the southwest blows the few clouds to the distant Altai Range. The clouds remain around the mountain peaks, where there may be a little rain in the evening. But the desert valley remains bone dry. The stunted evergreen shrubs turn yellow. If you visit the desert in spring, though, perhaps somewhere in middle Asia such as the area around Bukhara, the desert is surprisingly full of animals and birds.

The wildlife is active day and night. The incessant song of the larks and wheatears (Oenanthe) can be heard everywhere, and, right in front of your eyes, there are incredible battles--the mating displays of tortoises and lizards. Tireless dung beetles roll up their balls of camel dung. Busy ants rush up and down, bearing their heavy load to the labyrinthine underground nest. Rodents such as the great gerbil (Rhombomys opimus) and the long-toed ground squirrel (Spermophilus leptodactylus) are constantly active, replacing the energy reserves they have used up during the winter, rebuilding last year's nest, and starting to breed.

The nights are still cold. The temperature goes down to 41[degrees]F (5[degrees]C), but the gerbils emerged from hibernation several days ago. The ones in this nest are especially restless. The headlights of cars often reveal these animals at night, when they are running fast on their back legs. Nocturnal jerboas are very active. Owls swoop silently on their prey. The marbled polecat (Vormela peregusna) hunts gerbils and may enter their hidden burrows. It will soon be dawn, and the song of the lark will be heard all over the desert. The daytime species are replacing the nighttime ones.

Spring in the deserts of middle Asia is a period of exuberant plant growth. There is nowhere like the flower-covered plain of the southern Kyzyl Kum in mid-April and early May. The gypsum plateaus, covered with gray-brown gravel, have bright patches of red, yellow, and orange tulips among the bluishgreen of the young Artemisia shoots. Shallow depressions and the slopes of the hills are bright red with poppy flowers. The plains give the strange impression of being a forest of weird pygmy trees. The so-called pygmy tree in question is the flower stalk of asafoetida (Ferula assa-fetida), a perennial umbellifer bearing a massive flower spike more than 5 ft (1.5 m) tall with a huge round greenish yellow inflorescence. The sharp bitter smell of the asafoetida brings swarms of insects, including flies, bees, wasps, bugs, and beetles. If the wind drops for a moment, the buzz of thousands of wings can be heard.

In clay areas, in the dry beds of rivers crossing the desert, foxtail lilies (Eremurus, Liliaceae) produce their tall delicate pink flowers that recall a florist's hyacinths. The many ephemerophytes, small annual herbaceous plants, paint the entire landscape a distinctive color. The complete cycle of these ephemerophytes is completed in a month and a half or two months, but this is quite enough to produce and ripen their seed. The seed is wind-dispersed and remains in the soil until the next year.

Sand deserts also have their charms. In the spring, they are full of luxuriant reeds and cushion plants. In the depressions between the barchans and among the rolling dunes, the sand sedge (Carex physodes) forms a dense deep-rooted green carpet. In summer, the plants are as dry as dust, but in the spring, the slightest rainfall makes them sprout. The rhizomes of C. physodes, for example, can remain dormant for five years.

Among the stable and semistable dunes are many species of Calligonum. Their small flowers are inconspicuous, but their large round fruits are brightly colored-lemon yellow, red, or scarlet, depending on the species. On the ridges of sand and in the depressions between them, there are small fragrant trees of Eremosparton, Ammodendron, and Smirnowia. The deep blue sky, the reflective sand, and the clumps of different hued plants all make this desert very colorful at this time of year.

Even in the parching summer, the Asiatic deserts show fascinating and beautiful details. From time to time, a toad-headed lizard (Phrynocephalus versicolor) or a ground jay (Podoces hendersonii) appears, while a noisy wingless grasshopper of the genus Damalacantha chirrs monotonously in unison with the wind. Exhausted by the suffocating heat, bactrian camels shelter in the shade of the black saxaouls.

Soon the sun will set. The heat will abate, the wind will fall, and the desert will come to life. Lizards emerge from their shallow burrows in search of insects. The sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus flies swiftly through the air. Small groups of 5-10 birds fly off to springs and watering places. Dusk is very short in the desert. Before night has fallen, a small bare section of the clay surface starts to move, and the head of a strange little animal appears. A jerboa with its long ears and large black eyes examines the surroundings for a couple of minutes without moving, then jumps suddenly away from its burrow so fast that bits of soil are thrown aside. It starts to browse on the saltwort known in Russian as solianca (Salsola laricifolia). This small ground jerboa is Alactagulus pumilio, the most varied and abundant of the Asian cold desert rodents. The desert, in short, wakes up at night.
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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Date:Apr 1, 2000
Previous Article:Tree, that does not cast a shadow.
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