Habitats in the UAE
Nature Tour of the UAE
Wildlife in the UAE
Captive breeding of rare breeds
Watching whales and dolphins in the UAE
Scorpions and snakes
Ornithological importance of UAE
Return to Travel Centre - Main Index
Despite its reputation as a land of twenty-first-century cities and forbidding desert, the UAE has some very diverse habitats that support a wide range of wildlife. On land, the landscape is dominated by desert, ranging from vast, flat expanses to impressive rolling dunes, which are a prominent feature, especially in the south. Extensive salt flats (sabkha) and white sandy shorelines occur in coastal areas, and in the east the Hajar Mountains rise sharply above the surrounding landscape to an elevation of about 2000 m.
Few animals can tolerate the extreme heat of the desert for long so they are obliged to adopt one of a number of strategies. For many this involves burrowing, spending long periods resting in holes well below the surface, whilst others such as the sand skink and the sand boa move rapidly beneath the surface of uncompacted sand. A high proportion of species are nocturnal, coming out only at night when it is cooler, and some aestivate, i.e. spend the summer months underground in a condition of torpor similar to hibernation. As a result, it is often difficult to see wildlife. Nevertheless it is there!
Birds cannot burrow or aestivate, but they do migrate. The number of species resident in the desert is very few. But this was probably always so. The most desert-adapted species resident in the UAE are the hoopoe lark, the cream-coloured courser and the black-crowned finch lark. The long legged buzzard, little owl and desert eagle owl maintain small breeding populations, and the brown-necked raven is not uncommon. In the autumn and winter months the resident birds are joined by a range of migrants that breed in Central Asia – various species of lark, wheatear and warbler, as well as the much-prized houbara bustard.
Reptiles are the dominant animal group in the desert, including a number of lizards, ranging from the delicate geckos to the larger and more robust dhubs or spiny-tailed lizards, together with the giant of desert lizards, the monitor, which can be nearly a metre in length. You may encounter several species of snake in the desert, the commonest being the poisonous horned viper.
In general, desert mammals have not fared as well as the birds or reptiles. Within the last few decades the desert has experienced local extinctions of the wolf, oryx, striped hyaena and jackal. On the other hand, the fearless honey badger, previously thought to be extinct in the UAE, has been sighted in recent years. Two species of gazelle still survive, though both are rare and with limited ranges. The sand gazelle is present to the south of the Liwa and the mountain gazelle occurs in an area bordered by the major roads between Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain. The sand cat is believed to have been reduced to a seriously low level, but data is lacking because this is such a shy nocturnal animal. The beautiful little Rueppell’s fox and even the cape hare are probably far less numerous than they used to be. However, the main stronghold for these species is thought to be the western part of Abu Dhabi emirate. The lesser jerboa and three species of hedgehog survive, but again are shy creatures and therefore difficult to see.
We do not often think of the desert in terms of vegetation, but a wide range of plant-life is specially adapted to the inhospitable conditions: palm trees grow in the dunes, their roots reaching down to the water table. Other valiant plants, including a wide range of shrubs and herbs such as Tribulus species manage to survive the extremes of heat and drought, supplying grazing for domesticated and wild ungulates. Characteristic groves of ghaf trees provide shelter and grazing. And then there are the spring rains, which can really bring the desert to life with veritable fields of grasses and brightly flowering plants carpeting the sandy expanses. Insects, including beetles and butterflies, also thrive in these conditions, and arthropods such as scorpions and spiders are also common.
Freshwater oases are scattered throughout the country: for instance, on the plains on either side of the Hajar Mountains and in many desert locations in Abu Dhabi emirate. The largest desert oasis occurs in the Liwa crescent, which is, in fact, a series of individual oases stretching for more than 100 km.
On the mountain and coastal plains, oases are usually irrigated by a falaj system: underground water is tapped from the edge of the mountains and then diverted along channels to its destination, a system that dates back at least 3000 years in the UAE. In the mountains the ghayl system is common whereby water is extracted from the upper reaches of the wadi bed and is fed along open watercourses built into the sides of the wadi and channelled to terraced fields.
Date-palm plantations dominate the oases, but other crops are also cultivated and many wild species of plants take advantage of the increased moisture and shade. Wild fauna are also attracted to these cultivated areas, so too are lizards, and insects such as beetles, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and crickets thrive in these conditions.
Mountains and wadis
The Hajar Mountains, the major mountain system of south-eastern Arabia, transverse the UAE from north to south in the east of the country, near to the Gulf of Oman coast. Rising abruptly from the surrounding terrain, the mountains are dissected by numerous wadis or valleys. Apart from small pockets of soil that accumulate in rock fissures, the spectacular mountain scenery often appears distinctly barren. However, this initial impression is misleading, because many wadis and the high mountain plateaux can support relatively lush vegetation. In fact, assisted by increased precipitation and lower temperatures, the mountainous areas contain the highest diversity of plant life compared to any other habitat type in the UAE.
On the lower mountain slopes, the umbrella-like Acacia tortilis and Euphorbia larica are ever-present, accompanied by a number of perennials. At higher altitudes, trees such as the graceful pink-flowering Moringa peregrina and Ficus cordata become more prominent on rock debris, especially near wadis. In the far north-east, the Arabian almond, Amygdalus arabica, grows above 1000 m and olive trees, Olea europaea, are locally common high in the mountains.
The wadis, some with permanent pools or, in rarer instances, a flow of water even after years of sparse rainfall, are home to a resident community of birds, including the brown-necked raven, desert lark, sand martin and the rock martin. Egyptian vulture and possibly the lappet-faced vulture may soar overhead. The nocturnal desert eagle owl is also found on mountain cliffs and in a number of wadis. Lower down in wadis that benefit from water and cultivated vegetation, Indian rollers, laughing doves, purple sunbirds and little green bee-eaters are found.
Insects such as butterflies, dragonflies thrive near vegetation and water, and scorpions and spiders burrow under debris and stones. All of the seven native land snails live in or near the mountains. The wadis and screes are home, too, to geckos and other lizards, the tessellated skink and the Asian snake-eyed skink. Whilst the wadi racer snake, as its name indicates, is found in most wadis with permanent water. Here, also, you may see the only amphibians present in the UAE, two species of toad, as well as three native and two non-native species of freshwater fish, including tilapia.
High up in the mountains, the mammalian population has not fared very well. Mountain predators such as the Arabian leopard, the caracal lynx, the Arabian wolf and the striped hyena have all been decimated, to the point of extinction in the case of the wolf and hyena. Wild mammalian herbivores such as ibex, wild goat, mountain gazelle, Arabian tahr and rock hyrax have also suffered. Today only a few leopard and the notoriously elusive tahr survive.
Coast and Islands
Salt flats or sabkha and hundreds of natural islands are the dominant features of the Arabian Gulf coast west of Abu Dhabi, whilst many channels, creeks or ‘khors’ indent the more exposed northern coast; and to the east, steep craggy mountains sweep down to the shores of the Gulf of Oman, at times interrupted by a narrow tree-studded alluvial foreland.
The shallow Arabian Gulf seas are warm (18?C in winter to over 35?C in summer) and saline (reaches 40 to 50 parts per thousand). The waters of the short coastline flanking the Gulf of Oman, on the other hand, are much more oceanic in character, experiencing only slightly elevated salinities of 36 to 37 parts per thousand, whilst temperatures vary from 21?C in winter to just over 34?C in summer.
Both coastal regions are home to important coral reef and mangrove communities, internationally significant island seabird colonies as well as large numbers of migratory waterbirds; and they provide a nesting and feeding ground for turtles, dugongs, whales and dolphins.
The western Arabian Gulf coast has some magnificent stands of mature mangroves, valuable havens for birds and spawning and nursery grounds for a large variety of fish. One remarkable mangrove stand is at Khor Kalba on the east-facing coast. This is home to two rare bird species, the booted warbler and a unique race of white-collared kingfisher.
Only one mangrove species occurs naturally in the UAE: Avicennia marina. Three other species have been introduced or re-introduced into the intertidal area in Abu Dhabi where replanting is taking place on a large scale to offset the effects of coastal development.
Numerous offshore islands, many of them private, ranging from the massive Abu al-Abyadh to tiny islets, are a haven for seabirds. Huge numbers of migrant waders feed on extensive mudflats at Abu al-Abyadh, which also supports the largest breeding colony of crab plovers in the Arabian Gulf.
Abu Dhabi’s islands also support internationally important populations of five species of tern, Saunders’ little, white-cheeked, swift, lesser crested and bridled. Other internationally important breeding seabirds include the sooty gull and the beautiful red-billed tropicbird. Magnificent ospreys breed on many of the islands. However one of the most spectacular sights is the massive flocks of Socotra cormorants that wheel through the sky hunting for fish. This is a globally endangered species that breeds on a handful of islands in the Arabian Gulf (notably Sinaiya in Umm al-Qaiwain) and off Oman.
The many khors or inlets along the Arabian Gulf coast are also home to sizeable populations of wintering and passage wading birds, whilst Ra’s al-Khor Wildlife Sanctuary at the head of Dubai Creek is a protected area that attracts significant numbers of waders, herons wildfowl and large flocks of flamingos.
Unlike the Arabian Gulf emirates, Fujairah and the east coast enclaves belonging to Sharjah have nutrient-rich deep water in close proximity to the shoreline. Much of the coast here is low-lying and exposed to onshore winds and wave action. Rocky cliff-like outcrops, interspersed with tidal sandy bays, support a wide variety of marine organisms.
Preservation and protection of these unique habitats is a primary consideration.
Bu Tinah Island, 120 km from the city of Abu Dhabi and part of the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve (MMBR), was recognised by UNESCO in 2007 and is the region’s first and largest Marine Biosphere Reserve (MBR).
In addition to Bu Tinah Island, the 4,255-sq-km reserve comprises the islands of Marawah, Jenanah, Salahah and Al Buzm al Gharbi. The site, which includes numerous islands and a coastline stretching over 120 km, comprises several important representatives habitats of national and regional significance. These include sea grass beds (3 species), coral reef communities (more than 18 species), macroalgae outcrops (more than 15 species) and mangrove vegetation (monostands of Avicennia marina). Marawah Biosphere reserve is also of global importance as a shelter and feeding ground for vulnerable dugongs. The recorded population of dugongs in this area constitutes the second largest aggregation in the world. The area also provides crucial nursery and spawning grounds for a wide variety of fish species and is regionally important as a foraging and nesting habitat for critically endangered hawksbill turtles and endangered green turtles. The islands are also home to large numbers of migratory birds, including about 5 per cent of the world population of the vulnerable Socotra cormorant.
Already at the tolerance limits of their range in terms of temperature and salinity, the reef-building corals in Arabian Gulf waters have been severely stressed by spiking sea temperatures, leading to bleaching and death. Although coral coverage is at its lowest level, scientists believe that, given protection, reefs will recover from the damage suffered during past stress/temperature anomalies. They point to clear signs of the coral system’s resilience with reefs showing active signs of regeneration. There are also many projects underway to encourage regeneration of coral and create artificial reefs.
The UAE’s dugong population is also in need of protection. The UAE has banned all hunting of dugongs within its waters and has also banned driftnet fishing, which should avoid accidental drowning. However, the dugongs’ specialised habitat, sea-grass beds, is under threat. In addition, since dugongs are migratory species travelling across a range in search of food, transboundary cooperation is vital for their future.
Since October 2009 the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) has hosted and funded a coordination office in Abu Dhabi for the UN Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Memoranda of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs (UNEP/CMS Dugong MoU) and is at the forefront of efforts to support conservation at home and abroad. A new initiative launched in Abu Dhabi in 2012 encourages investment in rural communities worldwide in exchange for conservation of dugongs and maintenance of their habitats.
Conservation management of migratory turtles that nest on the UAE’s beaches and feed in its waters is also a challenge. Local scientists are engaged in important research into turtle populations and have forged links with international organisations and researchers interested in ensuring the continued survival of the UAE’s turtles. The CMS treaty, which also covers turtles, has been central to regional cooperation and the UAE has taken a leading role in this regard.
Click here for comprehensive information on the UAE’s marine environment
The Emirates: A Natural History