As several contributors to the new University of Arizona Press anthology affirm, desert life is not really a competitive race to get the last water or the last sheltered space in which to settle in for the season.
There is as much cooperation in arid landscapes as there is competition between lifeforms, species and individuals. Sometimes cooperation and competition look like two sides of the same coin.
But what is new in the thinking of desert ecologists is their acknowledgement of the enormous role desert micro-organisms play in shaping desert communities. Life underground influences and in many cases “controls” what we see above-ground.
Many of the soil and rhizosphere microbes do “compete” with one another for suitable sites on the root hairs of desert plants in order to obtain moisture and nutrients, but they are also cooperating in a mutualistic manner with their plant hosts.
So even the question, “Does competition for scarce resources or cooperation to share them dominate desert life?” is wrongly framed.
Both processes are intertwined, and what lies hidden in the desert soil may weave those processes together more than what we see in plain sight. And what lies hidden in the desert is more valuable than gold, oil, or sequestered carbon: essential clues on to how to live in a hotter drier world without killing off our neighbors or ourselves!