When someone says they love animals they’re probably referencing their pets, or some cute elephants they saw at the zoo. Rarely do you find someone who loves the adaptive qualities of the animals who live in the most extreme places in the world. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be appreciative of those animals who make their homes in some of the world’s harshest and most unforgiving climates, because they evolve into some stunning creatures with crazy abilities that we didn’t realise nature was capable of.
If you want to see some extreme animals, you must go to extreme lengths—the taller the mountain, the more adaptive the animals, the drier the desert, the more diverse its wildlife. You’ll notice from this list that the Himalayas and the Sahara, the highest mountain range and largest desert, respectively, are home to the most bizarre animals (let’s not get into the creepy creatures you’ll find in Australia just yet).
If you’re going hiking in either environment, you’ll need to know the local flora and fauna so make sure you do your research, but first, check out this list of the most breathtaking and bizarre of animals found in both mountain and desert landscapes.
Let's start with the 13 impressive animals found in the mountains...
25 Snow Leopard- Hidden In The Rocks
Crouching in the mountain ranges of central and south Asia is the snow leopard, a type of large cat whose coat blends in with its snowy and rocky habitat. They’re common in the Himalaya Mountains, but can also be found in mountains from Afghanistan and Pakistan all the way to Mongolia.
Snow leopards are master hunters and prey on other Asian alpine animals like ibex, sheep, and hares. They have evolved to expertly scale steep mountain ridges like the mountain goat in order to successfully hunt. However, threats from humans are slowly taking a toll on snow leopard populations in Asia.
24 Northern Copperhead Snake- Not Your Average Rattlesnake
North America’s got some pretty terrifying species of snakes, even if you’re not one to bolt in fear if you see a garter snake slithering through your garden. You might at first think of rattlesnakes as America’s most unsettling snake, but that’s because you’ve never heard of the northern copperhead snake.
Northern copperheads make their homes in and around the Appalachian Mountain range of the eastern United States. A type of pit viper, it has heat-detecting organs to help it hunt and releases a potent venom in its bite. Even newborns have venom as strong as an adult’s but don’t worry, a bit off one of these snakes is rarely fatal to humans.
23 Hoary Marmot- Furry Marmot?
Despite its silly-sounding name, the hoary marmot is an impressive little creature. This large rodent can measure up to two or three feet in length, making it possibly the largest member of the ground squirrel family.
Hoary marmots live primarily in northwestern North America, from the mountains of Alaska to British Columbia. They spend much of their time eating, munching on various grasses and leaves found in their high-elevation habitat, but their most unique feature is probably their high-pitched shriek used to alert members of its family to approaching danger.
22 Himalayan Monal Pheasant- The Peacock Of The Himalayas
The Himalayan monal pheasant might just be the prettiest bird in the pheasant family, after the true peacock, of course. Though it lacks the enormous size and intricate feather patterns of the peacock, the monal pheasant has no shortage of bright colour or luminous crests to dazzle onlookers.
Like the peacock, male monal pheasants are the colourful birds, while females wear a coat of more subdued brown feathers. They live in high elevations in summer and alpine valleys in winter, but have a spectacular tolerance for snow, often digging up insects to eat in it.
21 Mountain Goat- A Gymnast On Hooves
You've probably seen the immense agility and expert footing of the mountain goat on a nature documentary at least once and were amazed that mountain goats can scale a 60-degree cliff face easily. Cloven hooves help them balance their weight on tiny ledges and even slick ice.
Native to North America, mountain goats live in the northwest, particularly from the Pacific Northwest and extending further north. It’s an unusual animal for the region, as it actually is not a member of the goat family. Instead, it’s more closely related to the antelope and very close to the Himalayan takin.
20 Musk Deer- Can Fangs Be This Adorable?
You probably know the term “musk” by the scent—a typically masculine smell that was traditionally harvested from unique glands on the musk deer. But the species of deer, native to the mountainous regions of southern Asia, is far different than your average white-tailed deer.
Musk deer, belonging to the moschus family, are a small species of mountain-dwelling deer that are characterised not only by the expensive musk scent but the small tusks that protrude from the sides of their mouths, almost like fangs. What do you think about a vampire deer, cute or creepy?
19 Takahe- Only In New Zealand...
Though a fraction of the size of its neighbour Australia, New Zealand has a number of crazy critters that would rival even Australia’s native species. The South Island takahe is a flightless bird found only in this South Pacific nation, and currently lives primarily in the Murchison Mountains of South Island.
The takahe was driven to presumed extinction in the 19th century by European explorers, but was rediscovered in the mid-20th century. The survival of the species is looking up, and the population is growing steadily with the help of the New Zealand Department of Conservation.
18 Black Bear- This Isn't Winnie The Pooh
The black bear might not be the most unique creature to like in the mountains, but it’s definitely one to be aware of, especially for the millions of people who go camping in forested and mountainous regions of North America each year. Though black bears are the smallest bears on the continent, it doesn’t make them any less vicious.
Black bears are commonly attracted to humans by the scent of food, and a human has little chance against a hungry bear. They’re the world’s most common species of bear, so remember the bear spray the next time you’re in the woods.
17 Pebble Toad- Like A Rolling Toad
Although it isn’t South America’s most threatening predator, the pebble toad has evolved to survive, unlike any other amphibian. Found only in the Guiana Highlands of Venezuela, the pebble toad is usually less than an inch long, with some females reaching just over an inch in length.
The toad gets its name from its interesting defense strategy—when pursued by a predator, it tucks in its head and limbs, disguising itself as a pebble. If on a steep ledge, which it usually is, it can roll down an incline at a rapid pace, easily escaping danger.
16 Himalayan Tahr- Sheep? Goat? Yak?
So, we know now that the mountain goat isn’t even a goat, but the Himalayan tahr is actually a type of wild goat. The long-haired species can be identified as part of the goat family by its horns, which round in the characteristically goat-like shape (the mountain goats' are straight).
The tahr lives in along the entire stretch of the Himalayas, with large populations in Pakistan, India, Tibet, and Nepal, and has even been introduced to non-native regions in Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States, but is still listed as having a near-threatened conservation status.
15 Wild Boar- It May Look Like Pumbaa...
This isn’t the cute little pig you see on a farm. Wild boars can be extremely vicious and have been known to attack humans while being one of the most notorious invasive species. Native to much of Europe and Asia, wild boars have spread to North America, Australia, and parts of North Africa with human help.
They typically live in forested mountain areas that don’t have extreme temperatures, making them a target for ambitious hunters. Interaction with wild boars can be volatile, as this type of pig is unusually aggressive and strong, with high intelligence and a well-armoured body.
14 Alpine Ibex- Rock-Climbing Goats
If you want to see a real mountain goat, then you’ll want to seek out the Alpine ibex. Living exclusively in the European Alps, this goat resides high in the mountains in summer when it’s not too icy. Like the mountain goat, ibexes are very well adapted to walking (and sometimes fighting) on steep slopes and crumbling rock faces.
They’re easy to spot from Alpine cable cars in Switzerland and are distinguished by their massive, curved horns. The ibex was trophy hunted so severely in Switzerland that at one point they were no longer found in their natural habitat. They have since been reintroduced and are thriving.
13 Black-Necked Tibetan Crane- Leave It To The Himalayas
Himalayan animals have evolved to be some of the world’s toughest, but without sacrificing any beauty. The Himalayan black-necked crane is a sacred bird in the region, especially in the Tibetan Plateau, where most of the population lives and breeds.
This crane is still celebrated in Tibetan Buddhism, which often depicts the birds alongside deities in artistic depictions. Typically quite shy, the cranes often pay no mind to locals and seem to be able to tell apart native peoples and foreigners to the area, who tend to scare them off.
And here are the 12 impressive creatures found in the desert...
12 Death-Stalker Scorpion- Let's Get The Obvious Out Of The Way
Scorpions are probably the most out-there desert creatures—a small member of the arachnid family that carries potentially deadly venom in its tail (it should be an arachnophobe's worst nightmare). However, not all scorpions are treated the same, and the deathstalker scorpion’s name probably tells you everything you want to know.
Also called the Palestinian yellow scorpion, deathstalker poison is very dangerous to humans, and a sting can cause cardiovascular and respiratory failure, though rarely is fatal to healthy adults. Its venom has even been studied in reducing the growth of cancer cells in humans.
11 Thorny Devil Lizard- Only In Australia
The thorny devil lizard looks more like a miniature dragon than a lizard and is exactly the type of animal Australia might produce. They’ve adapted amazingly well to their environment, from their spiky skin to their odd way of drinking.
Their spiny bodies are a warning sign to predators that they should not attempt to eat the walking cactus, but their skin also has another strange, yet useful, purpose. In the dry climate, water is scarce, but the thorny devil’s skin has the ability to collect dew between its spikes and absorb it so that they don’t need to drink water exclusively through their mouths.
10 Fennec Fox- Don't Let Their Cuteness Fool You
Adopting fennec foxes as pets has recently become a phenomenon in the Western world, but these furry friends require a lot of care in captivity. In the wild, fennecs are feisty animals that love to dig, run, and hunt, like other fox species.
Fennecs are the smallest foxes, though they have the ears to make up for it. They use their massive ears to dissipate heat and redistribute it over their bodies and have top-notch hearing for listening for underground prey. Their bodies, from their internal organs to their coats, are well adjusted to the dry heat of their native Sahara.
9 Scarab Beetle- The Luminous Beetle
The ancient Egyptians were known for worshipping their housecats, but did you know they also held the scarab beetle in high regard? This must have been one special bug to be buried alongside pharaohs in enormous tombs. The scarab was thought to be associated with the sun deity, Khepri, and was considered divine.
Scarab is an entire family of over 30,000 types of beetles, but the revered one is called, appropriately, the sacred scarab. These dung beetles eat and lay their eggs in the feces of larger animals, a process that’s much less divine than gracing the sarcophagi of kings.
8 Desert Tortoise- Can They Handle The Heat?
Although most tortoises live near water or at least wet ecosystems, two types of desert tortoise have evolved to live in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of southern North America. Desert tortoises usually have a tall, round shell and are equipped with claws to dig burrows when temperatures get too hot.
Unfortunately, human activity too close to their habitat has been depleting desert tortoise population, from the removal of the shrubs and plants they eat to the slight rise in temperature where they live, resulting in shorter lifespans and even population decline to vulnerable conservation status.
7 Jerboa- The Kangaroo Mouse
This little guy looks like he belongs in the pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but you better believe he’s hopping through the deserts of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Australia. The mouselike jerboa is a small rodent of only a few inches in length, with prominent back legs for hopping.
The two-legged animal’s long legs help propel it through sand and rock, and its speed serves as a defense from predators. The jerboa can leap up to ten feet when startled, though their normal pace is more of a slow amble.
6 Horned Viper- The Dragon Snake
If you see a snake with a dragon’s head in the wild, you’d be wise to get out of there quickly and without disturbing the animal. Though not a particularly long snake, the horned viper of the Sahara is a striking predator.
Blending in with their environment with a sandy brown body, the viper settles in the sand and is often invisible to prey, especially at night to nocturnal animals with poor eyesight. When they move, they travel in a unique “sidewinder” pattern that prevents them from touching the hot sand too much and overheating.
5 Camel- Can't Mention The Desert Without A Camel
You already know the camel is almost always associated with desert environments, but have you ever stopped to think about how incredible this pack animal is? Everyone knows that camels can travel long distances in extreme heat with little food and water, but did you know that a camel can actually survive up to six months without any food or water?
Thank their humps, which are stored fat deposits that the animal can metabolise when nutrients are scarce. The Arabian camel has one hump, while the endangered Bactrian camel has two.
4 Monitor Lizard- Monster Lizard
The monitor lizard is about as close as you can get to a dragon or dinosaur in our world. Their sturdy heads and muscular bodies make them the king of the desert, and they have been known to take down animals much larger than they are, even water buffalo at times.
Monitor lizards are native to Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia, though they are now found in North America as an invasive species. They usually live on the borders of wet and dry climates and can adapt to environments with very limited water easily.
3 (Desert) Peccary- It's Not A Boar
The peccary, also called a skunk pig, is a small pig that looks much like a wild boar but is distinctive in its size and behaviour. Significantly less aggressive than the boar, peccaries can still be hostile, though in no way as dangerous as its distant cousin.
Peccaries live in the deserts of southern North America and in the dry climates of South America, and group together in herds. Though they may look like unassuming miniature pigs, their one distinguishing feature is their strange call, sounding at first like a bark and sometimes like a rattle.
2 (Desert) Blind Skink- A Lizard With No Eyes Or Limbs
The blind skink is just another snake, right? Wrong, and it’s not a worm, either. It’s actually a lizard, which, over time has lost its eyes and limbs, much like ancient whales lost their limbs when they moved into the water.
This type of skink burrowed underground thousands of years ago and evolved to no longer need its eyes or limbs, just like an earthworm (and looking alarmingly like a worm). Blind skinks are only found in Indonesia and the Philippines, but you probably won’t see them, as they live almost exclusively underground.
1 Red-Tailed Hawk- The Bad Boy Of The Desert Sky
The red-tailed hawk is the most common variety of hawk found in North and Central America and is adaptable enough to thrive in most ecosystems on the continent, and though they’re native to open spaces like deserts, they also live in mountains and forests.
Their distinctive red tail attracts wonder and admiration from human onlookers, but it’s the hawk's expert hunting that should really draw appreciation. They prefer expansive areas for hunting, in which they can utilise their keen eyesight to see small prey at long distances. Hawks can spot rodents burrowing from high perches with only their sight as a tracking device.
References: World Wildlife Fund, National Geographic, Encyclopedia Brittanica