Animals of the Sonoran Desert
|Lesser Longnose Bat. Bats fly by night by relying on their hearing rather than their poor eyesight. The return echo of their high-pitched voices bouncing off objects in their path (a kind of sonar) guides them through the skies and enables them to hunt airborne insects, many of which are costly agricultural pests. The lesser longnose bats are believed to be pollinators for many species of agave plants and serve as pollinators and seed-dispersers for dozens of species of columnar cacti, including the saguaro.|
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes eat small, warm-blooded mammals. Not fast enough to overtake their prey, they often wait coiled in ambush along rodent trails. Alerted to the approach of prey by its heat-sensing loreal pit, the rattlesnake will strike as the animal passes by. The victim runs for a little while until the venom kills it, after which the snake will uncoil and, once again guided by body heat, approach the victim and swallow it whole.
Gila Monster. A poisonous lizard with an undeserved bad reputation, the Gila monster is not aggressive and must actually chew on its victim to inject its poison (which is seldom fatal to humans). Gila monsters pick up and convey scents with their tongues and transmit them to a specialized sensory organ in the roofs of their mouths. Gila monsters can grow to a length of 50 centimeters and are patterned with pink, yellow, and black beadlike scales. They eat a variety of small mammals, lizards, insects, worms, and the remains of animals, which are swallowed whole. Bird and reptile eggs are also in their diet, but these are broken first.
Tarantula. These hairy spiders have adapted to the desert in part by burrowing into the ground to make their nests, thus avoiding the daytime heat. Hairy and as big as a human hand, they appear fierce but are not dangerous. A tarantula's venom is no more poisonous than that of a bee, and they rarely attack people. These spiders can live up to 20 years on their diet of insects, lizards, and other small animals.
Elf Owl. This raptor lives in abandoned nest holes dug in cactus flesh by Gila woodpeckers and Mearns flickers. Diminutive, saucer-eyed, and only 15 centimeters tall, the elf owl is the tiniest of the owls - but still deadly, with flexible toes for striking and gripping and a strong beak for tearing flesh.
Coyote. More often heard (as a howl in the desert night) than seen, this member of the dog family is a symbol of the Southwest. An adult male is about 110 centimeters long (including a 30-centimeter tail), and weighs about 10.5 kilograms. It can sprint 72 kilometers per hour and leap 6 meters in a bound, a useful talent for catching animals such as black-tailed jackrabbits, cottontails, kangaroo rats, and other rodents. The coyote is an omnivorous predator and scavenger, which helps it survive in the Sonoran ecosystem.
Gray Fox. A handsome animal, this fox has gray fur highlighted by a black stripe that runs down the top of its tail, along with orange or reddish patches along the sides of its throat. The gray fox stands about 35 centimeters high at the shoulder and, including its 22- to 43-centimeter tail, is 90 to 120 centimeters long. While its main diet is rodents, it will eat anything: mammals, birds, reptiles, plants, berries, dates, or tubers. Lacking in speed, the gray fox pounces like a cat, often from ambush. It also migrates like a bird, traveling to the coolness of higher altitudes during the summer and living in the canyons and flatlands in winter.
Pack Rat. Also known as the wood rat or trade rat, this creature is surprisingly strong for its size, carrying away objects that appear too heavy for it to move. It collects shiny things and stores them in its nest, often dropping one "treasure" in favor of another (hence the name "trade rat"). In the desert environment, the pack rat gets the moisture it needs from green vegetation, primarily cactus juices. The rat's diet is a mixture of mesquite beans and the seeds of grasses and shrubs. Its nests usually resemble piles of rubbish, but they are a marvel of construction with thick walls of woven or shredded bark or coarse grass lined by softer fibers. The nest serves as both home and fortress, with several tunnels that provide easy entrance and exit.
Kangaroo Rat. At 5 centimeters high with a tufted tail three times as long as its body, the kangaroo rat can cover ground at a rate of 5.1 meters per second. Using its tail as a rudder, it can make a 90-degree turn in midflight. The kangaroo rat lives in burrow communities 60 centimeters underground. Relentlessly hunted, it serves as food for all of the carnivores in the Sonoran ecosystem, including bobcats, snakes, hawks, owls, and foxes. Living on grasses, seeds, and cactus pulp, the kangaroo rat may go its entire lifetime without drinking water. It survives by strict water economy. It has no sweat glands, passes no urine, and, by sealing itself inside its burrow during the day, it traps the moisture lost through breathing and allows some of the vapor to recirculate into its body.
Ants. The nests of ants may be out in the open and highly visible or concealed in crevices under dead branches or rocks. Ants establish a foundation of nutrient and energy production that ultimately supports birds, mammals, and other wildlife through such activities as decomposing organic matter, moving and aerating soils, cycling soil nutrients, and dispersing seeds. Ant activities also increase soil moisture and contribute to nutrients near their nest. This often creates micro-habitats that support some plant species that grow solely in these localities. While being predators in their own right, ants also fill a niche near the bottom of the food chain.
Life in the Soil. Many of the animals and insects that move across the desert at night live under the surface. Rodents, snakes, spiders, wasps, termites, ants, and earthworms all make homes in burrows or nests underground. By far the greatest number of underground plants and animals are the microorganisms that live in the top 15 to 30 centimeters of the soil--bacteria, fungus, and moldlike plants, as well as millions of worms and single-celled protozoa. The dry Sonoran Desert climate results in soils that have fewer microorganisms and less organic matter than the moist soils of forests and prairies. Consequently, the microorganisms that are present are especially important as a source of nutrients, as a means of cycling nutrients, and for holding the small amount of moisture that is present so that other plants can use it.
Javelina or Collared Peccary. A relative of the pig that resembles a small razorback hog, these animals travel in bands of 10 to 20 and live in bushy areas. They grow to about 90 centimeters in length and 60 centimeters in height and are covered in coarse, grizzled, black and gray hair. Peccaries have razor-sharp teeth that are well suited to eating cactus and lechugilla, but they are not dangerous to humans. They must live near a source of water - succulent plants alone cannot sustain them. The twisting, vegetated washes of the Sonoran ecosystem offer peccaries concealment and shelter. Additionally, the erosion of the steep banks creates ideal dens - warm in winter and cool in summer.
Black-Tailed Jackrabbit. A far-from-particular vegetarian, this pale gray creature is not really a jackrabbit, but a hare. They grow to 60 centimeters in length, with a 7.5 - centimeter black tail and 15-centimeter ears. Well suited to desert life, the black-tailed jackrabbit gets all the water it needs from plants, although it will drink water if it is easily available. It does not dig burrows, instead living the life of a wanderer. Hunted by most Sonoran carnivores, it eludes capture using its keen, protuberant, side - mounted eyes that give it a horizontal sight range of almost 360 degrees. Excellent hearing and a gait that goes from leaps to bounds, and then to a racing speed that no predator can obtain also help it to escape hungry predators.
Plants of the Sonoran Desert
|Saguaro Cactus. One of the largest cacti anywhere, the saguaro grows up to 12 meters tall. Early in its life, it needs the shade of other vegetation to survive. The saguaro cactus has a fluted appearance, allowing it to expand or contract like an accordion as it absorbs and stores moisture or becomes desiccated.|
|Teddy Bear Cholla Cactus. This cactus is pretty but treacherous. The dense covering of golden spines makes this cactus attractive, but these spines are sharply barbed and the joints will readily come off and become embedded in whatever brushes by them. It can grow to a height of 1.2 to 3.6 meters.|
|Engelmann's Prickly Pear Cactus. A common cactus of the Southwest and one of the most massive, the Engelmann's prickly pear cactus forms large, trunkless mounds up to 1.5 meters tall and many meters across. Individual pads can be 30 centimeters long. Its spines are white and downward-pointing. This cactus bears yellow flowers that are followed by bright red fruit. |
|Barrel Cactus. A fat, barrel-shaped cactus with stout, hooked spines, the barrel cactus can grow up to 2.4 meters tall but is usually only 1.2 to 1.5 meters in height. Barrel cacti have radial spines surrounding a central spine. They are late bloomers, flowering in August or September. Barrel cacti have orange-red (and occasionally yellow) flowers that are followed by bright yellow fruit that is eaten by many animals. Several parts of the barrel cactus are used to make candy, resulting in the destruction of many stands of this cactus.|
|Saguaro Flower Cluster. This flower cluster is perched on top of an arm of the cactus. Saguaros begin to flower at 50 years of age. The flowers bloom in May, opening toward evening, staying open the next day, and then closing again for good. A few weeks later, the green fruits ripen and burst open, revealing a bright red, edible pulp. |
|Saguaro Cactus Trunk.|
|Ocotillo. A cactuslike tree, but not a cactus, the ocotillo blooms regardless of weather conditions over the previous winter and actually may bloom without leafing out in a particularly dry spring. The flower clusters of the ocotillo are tubular and scarlet red.|
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