dry and dusty. Summer days are scorching hot and winter nights can drop below
freezing. As you can imagine, adapting to life in the desert requires a special
sort of animal. Deserts are filled with them. From bighorn sheep to sidewinders,
desert tortoises to jackrabbits, and even frogs and fishes, you'll find a variety
of animals in the desert.
Desert animals stand out as emblems of the wildlife in these dry lands.
Like many desert creatures, desert tortoises spend most of their lives "holed
up." In spring and summer, they roam grazing on grasses and wildflowers,
then head for their burrows when it gets too hot. In fall and winter, when
it is cold and there is not much to eat, they stay burrowed in for six months
or more at a time.
If you see a
desert tortoise, you are seeing an endangered species. Please watch out for
them on the roads. Tortoises live in washes and valleys where the soil is
soft enough for them to burrow into, yet stable enough so they do not collapse.
Remember, desert tortoises are protected under the Endangered Species Act
and may not be handled or removed.
Kangaroo rats can go their whole lives without taking a drink of water! They
get enough water from the plants and seeds they eat. In the heat of the day,
they hide out in burrows and seal the entrances to keep the humidity high.
The jackrabbit is not rabbit at all. It is a member of the hare family and is the most frequently seen animal in the desert. Their extremely large ears are for more than hearing. They serve as a way for the jackrabbit to release heat from its body. These animals are fast and able to leap a great distance in a single jump. They may reach sizes that rival domestic cats or small dogs.
The common raven is a highly adaptable and intelligent bird resident of North
American deserts. Ravens are scavengers, meaning they will eat almost anything
living or dead. From dates to hamburgers to assorted road kill, ravens are
one desert species that has benefited from the growing human presence. One
unfortunate habit that has brought the raven some criticism is their tendency
to prey upon juvenile desert tortoises. Studies have shown that raven populations
have increased dramatically wherever dumps and other sites of human garbage
occur, such as campgrounds. This is one reason desert residents and visitors
should handle their trash carefully. Less trash means fewer ravens and healthier
desert tortoise populations.
Called paisano in Mexico, the roadrunner is a well-known desert resident that
only superficially resembles its popular cartoon portrayal. The greater roadrunner
has adapted to life on the run. Though it can fly well, it prefers to use
its strong legs and X-shaped toes to run rapidly over the desert landscape.
Active predators, roadrunners aggressively chase insects, lizards, snakes,
small birds and mammals. Tolerant of humans, they sometimes nest in protected
eaves and garages when they are not building large stick nests in desert trees.
Their vocalizations include bill clicking noises and a mournful cooing made
during breeding seasons. They do not meep-meep.
When desert rains cause pools of water to form, you are apt to find fairy
shrimp emerging from their eggs. Fairy shrimp eggs lie dormant throughout
long periods of drought. Look for them during the spring and early summer
in low-lying clay pans. These tiny creatures are a food source that attracts
shore birds and numerous migratory birds to the desert.
Fish? In the desert? Pupfish originally inhabited a stream and lake system
stretching from the Sierra Nevada through the Colorado River system over 10,000
years ago. As the climate became drier, populations became separated and eventually
evolved into the five distinctive species that exist today. Some have an exceptionally
high tolerance for salty water and temperature extremes. The two- inch-long
fish may be seen in Death Valley National Park and Ash Meadows National Wildlife
is full of stories about deadly scorpions, rattlesnakes, spiders and other
animals. The truth is, most people never come across one. But wouldn't you
feel a bit better about knowing about them?
A half dozen kinds of rattlesnakes make their homes in California's deserts,
but few folks ever see one. When rattlesnakes and people do meet, it is a
scary moment for both. But just remember: they are not looking for trouble.
If you back off, they will, too.
Sidewinder rattlesnakes are one of the desert's most infamous characters.
Named for their weird way of travel, sidewinders move forward by going sideways!
It may look loopy, but it is a good way for a snake to travel across the loose
sands on the washes and dunes.
hunt by night for desert rats and mice. Come day, they bury themselves in
the sand, leaving only distinctive rows of parallel tracks to mark their travels.
This species of rattlesnake is often called the "Mojave Green", due to the green tint on the scales of some snakes. Their venom is the most toxic of all North American rattlesnakes. Heed the sound of their rattle and keep your distance.
Often found in packrat nests, this non-venomous, blood-sucking insect has
a painful bite that can cause allergic reactions. Campers should carefully
inspect the area for packrat nests. These nests may provide shelter for this
Unless you go poking around the desert floor with a flashlight at night, or
peeking under rocks and bark by day, you are unlikely to find a scorpion.
stingers at the ends of their long tails which they use to stun spiders and
insects. In spite of what you may have seen in the movies, most scorpions
have a sting only about as strong as a wasp. Only one kind in California has
a sting strong enough to be deadly to us, and it is pretty rare. If you do
get stung, apply a cold pack and see a doctor.
Drop for drop, a black widow's venom packs more punch than a rattlesnake's.
It is a good thing these little spiders rarely bite unless touched or brushed
against. You will find them in their webs in out-of-the-way places around
homes, wood piles, and old buildings. (Be careful in old outhouses; black
widows sometimes lurk beneath the seats!)
These densely hairy, brightly colored insects are actually wasps that look
like large ants. The wingless females can inflict a sting so painful it has
earned the nickname "cow killer." Winged males have a menacing appearance
but are harmless. Although the most extreme pain effects dissipate quickly,
some pain and swelling may last for several hours. Some individuals may be
allergic to this insect's sting.
Centipedes are the "100-legged worms" you find under rocks and old
logs. They use their venomous pincers to capture spiders and insects, but
they will give you a painful bite if they feel threatened. To stay on their
good side, watch where you put your hands and remember to shake out your clothes
after a night camping in the desert.
to catch a glimps of the deserts large mammals. Shy and reclusive, they tend
to be more active during the night. You're most likely to see bighorn sheep,
kit fox, or bobcat in the mountainous regions or near water holes. Though
coyotes generally live up to their wily reputation, you may occasionally
spot one. And look for horses and burros. Once domesticated, they now roam
the desert as feral animals.
Bighorns travel the desert's mountainous regions in groups as they search
for the water and various plants that sustain them. When people and development
began to encroach on bighorn habitat, they were granted protection under the
Endangered Species Act. Nevertheless, illegal hunting is a problem. The dwindling
bighorn population is forced to compete with burros for food and water.
The sandy-colored kit fox blends easily into the landscape and is difficult
to see. Extremely well-adapted to life in the desert, they sleep in underground
dens during the day. They hunt at night, using their large ears to help find
and catch rodents. This prey provides them not only with food, but with much
of the water they need.
Found mostly in the foothills, bobcats are desert predators. They catch small
mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects. Though night active, you may see them
at dawn or dusk.
Coyotes trek the desert from the mountainous areas to the salt pans. They
live well in this landscape, hunting rodents (their favorite food), bird,
lizards, fish, and sick animals. They also scavenge dead animals and will
eat seeds and fruit. These social animals live mostly in groups. Some coyotes
have become bold enough to beg from park visitors. Do not feed any wild animals.
The origin of wild horses dates back to the days of Columbus and Cortez, explorers
who brought horses to North America. Burros were brought by Jesuit missionaries
and later used extensively by miners. Many of the descendants of these horses
and burros escaped or were abandoned by settlers, ranchers, prospectors, Native
American tribes, and the U.S. Cavalry between the late 1800s and 1930s. These
descendants formed the first wild horse and burro herds.
Considered pests by many who were trying to settle the west, these feral
creatures were hunted by "mustangers" until the population was
drastically reduced. A public outcry in the late 1960s influenced Congress
to enact, in 1971, the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, providing for
the protection, management, and control of wild horses and burros on lands
managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Federal protection and the absence
of natural predators contributed to flourishing populations. In 1976, BLM
began the National Wild Horse and Burro Program to place wild horses and burros
into caring homes. Ridgecrest Regional Wild Horse and Burro Corrals hosts up to 1,000 animals which are prepared for adoption.