Tired of being cooped up inside? How about learning about these super adaptable desert dwellers and then gearing up and going out with your family to see what you can see?
Bear Essential News asked Robin Kropp, education specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for more than two decades, to talk about some of her favorite creatures! Some are small, some slither and some are larger, but they all are amazing. And best yet, you don’t need to travel far to see several of ’em!
To prepare for your family’s outdoor adventure, check out azstateparks.com/hiking-safety. There’s a short video and great tips for staying safe as you enjoy some Arizona trails. Kids should always hike with an adult. With triple-digit temperatures already here, be sure to have enough water with you and cool early mornings might work better. But to see bats leaving their roost, you’ll need to be there at around sunset.
Some musts: closed-toed shoes or hiking boots, sunscreen (reapply as needed), a hat with a brim, snacks and someone should carry a basic first aid kit including tweezers and a comb in case of a run-in with a cactus. And if you have them, bring a pair of binoculars or a camera.
We Live in a Very Special Desert Ecosystem
Kropp points out that compared with the other deserts in North America, the 120,000-square-mile Sonoran Desert has a much more diverse ecosystem. “We are the only one considered a tropical or a warmer desert…we don’t tend to have as hard of freezes in the wintertime as the other deserts,” she explains. “So that leads to more plant diversity and more animal diversity than the other North American deserts.”
Our Sonoran Desert even has an ocean—the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California. “We also have the longest coastline of any desert in the world,” she points out. Weather patterns and moisture from the gulf drive our summer monsoons that deliver about half of our yearly rainfall.
There are hundreds of Sonoran Desert animals to learn about. And if you can’t hit the trails with your family, check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s online resources like Discover The Desert Online: www.desertmuseum.org/center/edu/dtdo/
Hawks are impressive, part of a group of amazing birds known as RAPTORS. “The word raptor is Latin for the word to seize something, and they use their sharp talons to seize their prey—they’re actively hunting their food,” Kropp explains.
Harris’s hawks (and Cooper’s hawks, too) have adapted to living in cities.
Hawks have amazing eyesight—some can see prey move from a mile away!
“Harris’s hawks are only one of two bird species that hunt with their family members like a wolf pack. They’re a collective hunting group—sometimes 10 to 12 birds, but usually around five birds. By working together, they can have a better advantage,” Kropp states.
“In terms of being wowed by an animal’s desert survivor ability, I would say that kangaroo rats win hands down! They have all these cool things that they do,” Kropp shares. While most desert critters need to drink water to survive, kangaroo rats do not!
According to Kropp, “they are so adapted to living with drought that they never have to drink a drop of free-standing water to survive!” They can get all the moisture they need from the seeds that they store and eat. They reduce their water loss by FORAGING at the coolest times in the night only for about an hour per day.
They collect seed for caching on the outside of special cheek pouches, meaning they don’t need to open their mouths to load their cheeks and risk losing more moisture. As they sleep in their burrow, the moisture they breathe out is absorbed by the seeds they’ve cached. “And THEN they eat the seeds! It’s like they’re recycling their breath water,” she adds.
Even their kidneys save water. These kidneys produce a really concentrated pasty pee that wastes little water compared to how human kidneys make urine.
Lesser Long-nosed Bat
Not all bats munch on insects all night long. The lesser long-nosed bat is a nectar and pollen feeder that’s essential to keeping our saguaro population going and other columnar cacti down in Mexico!
“Bats are definitely one of my favorites—the nectar-feeding bats,” Kropp says. “I love bats because they’re really misunderstood animals that have such an impact on our ecosystem here.”
Wintering in Mexico, it’s the pregnant females of these bats that begin heading northward in spring, following the flowering of different columnar cacti, creating what’s called the nectar corridor along the western part of the Sonoran Desert. By May, the bats arrive here with their babies and the saguaros begin to bloom. “These bats can fly like 60 miles in a night looking for food. These plants are giving them a ton of energy,” Kropp explains. The bats flitter to the top and while hovering, stick their heads into the large, tough flowers. The nectar gives them sugar and the pollen provides protein. With pollen stuck to their fur, the bats go to other saguaros, pollinating the flowers so they can turn into seed-filled fruit!
The babies mature, going on their own nectar and fruit-eating runs. In fall, the bats MIGRATE southward along the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert.
“My favorite snake is the gopher snake, sometimes called a bullsnake,” Kropp says. “What I love about them is they are super effective predators, so they’re great to have around if you don’t want to have mice and rats in your yard.” These constrictors are not dangerous to humans.
Gopher snakes have beautiful markings that help them blend into the desert landscape. And if startled, they’ll shake their tail and widen out their jaws to mimic rattlers to ward off predators “that have learned to stay away from rattlesnakes. It’s super convincing!” Kropp says.
These snakes have a varied diet and can shimmy up the channels of a saguaro to hunt nesting birds like Gila woodpeckers or their eggs.
Another desert denizen that has learned to adapt to living in the city is the coyote. “I love the fact that you can see them in the middle of town and they’re super comfortable around humans,” Krop explains. But she quickly adds there’s a downside. “By the same token, I’m always a little leery of them—they will hunt people’s pets.” Coyotes will hunt rabbits, rodents, insects, snakes and even larger prey like a deer. They’ll also eat fruit, grass and carrion.
She says coyotes can be out and about just about any time. “I like seeing them, and I like walking in the night and hearing them howling in my neighborhood.”
There’s Marine Life, Too!
The Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) splits the southern portion of the Sonoran Desert in two. This sea is about the same area as the land portion of our desert, meaning half of our desert is marine!
The area is known for its extreme change in sea level between high and low tides. The seawater is salty, but the diversity of sea life here is amazing.
One of the animals found only in the Sea of Cortez is the vaquita (translates to little cow). Under 5 feet long and weighing up to 95 pounds, not only is it the littlest porpoise in the world but is sadly also the most endangered of any cetacean. With their numbers dropping at an alarming rate, vaquitas are on the verge of extinction. Biologists estimate there may just be 10–18 adult vaquitas remaining.
The main reason for the decline of vaquitas may be the use of gill nets by fishermen in the region, who are trying to catch a fish called the totoaba, which is about the same length. Top prices are paid for totoaba swim bladders by certain Chinese people who wrongly believe they are a health food.