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Desert Animals


This page features some of the animals, reptiles and invertebrates found in the arid regions of the South-West USA where cacti and other succulent plants grow.
You can download larger images by clicking on the pictures below.


Left: A round tailed squirrel emerges from its burrow under a clump of cactus in the Desert Botanic Garden, Phoenix, Arizona. Don't mess with these animals ! They are fiercer than they look. Soon after posing for its photograph, this squirrel was observed harrassing a much larger snake which eventually gave up and slithered away.
Photographed May 1997.


Left: The pig-like Collared Peccary or Javelina sleeps in the shade under treees and bushes during the day and emerges in the early evening to forage for succulent foliage to browse, including Opuntia pads. Although these indviduals were solitary, they are commonly seen in family groups. Their sight is poor and they investigate their environment using their well-developed sense of smell. Mature males have small white tusks.
Javelina meat was used by American Indians when better food was unavailable. However, it is said to be rather greasy and unappetising.
Photographed in the Big Bend National Park, Texas, April 1993.


Left: The huge ears of this Jackrabbit catch the evening sun as it forages.
Photographed in the Desert Botanic Garden, Phoenix, Arizona.


Left: Deer are relatively common in the Big Bend country.
Photographed on the lower slopes of Mount Emory in the Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend National Park, Texas, April 1990.

gila monster
gila monster

The Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum) has a characteristic appearance of being covered by pink and black (or white and black) Indian bead-work. The genus name means "studded skin". Helodermatids are often regarded as living fossils.
The Gila Monster is native to the South-Western USA and the Mexican state of Sonora. The common name refers to habitat area around the Gila River of Arizona and New Mexico. The Gila monster feeds on bird and reptile eggs and also on small animals and carrion. Food is located by an extremely sensitive sense of smell.
The Gila Monster is venomous with a similar composition to that of the coral snake and delivered by grooved teeth. However, it is unclear if there is sufficient of the neurotoxic venom to kill a healthy man as everyone who died after being bitten was in poor health. These slow-moving lizards are protected by law and being bitten may be seen as a sign of undue interference.
Left: Photographs by Alan Francis.


Upper left: Where there are warm rocks to sit on in the sun, there are usually lizards to be seen. This male greater earless lizard (Holbrookia texana) sporting Spring courtship colours was photographed in the Burro Mesa runoff area, Big Bend National Park, Texas. April 1990.
Lower left: The female greater earless lizard does not adopt bright colours in the Spring and is well camouflaged against the rocks. She relies on staying absolutely still to avoid detection, which is a reasonable strategy faced with predators such as snakes and larger reptiles whose vision is relatively insensitive to stationary objects.


Left: A large lizard under an Opuntia in the Boyce Thomson Arboretum, Arizona. Photographed May 1997.

Common Chuckwalla

Left: Common Chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) female basking in the sun on a hot rock face. This large lizard didn't seem at all bothered by my presence.
Valley of Fires, New Mexico 2005.
Chuckwallas are mostly herbivorous, enjoying flowers, fruit and leaves with the odd insect for variety. They are said to be especially partial to yellow flowers. Chuckwallas obtain all the water that they need from their food and store water in special tissues in their tail.
The Common Chuckwalla is native to a large range from Southern California, Nevada & Utah, Western Arizona and North-Western Mexico. Four other species of Chuckwallas are native to Baja California and adjacent islands in the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez).
Left: Common Chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) orange-tailed male, characteristic of a population in South Mountain Park, Phoenix, Arizona.
Photographed by Alan Francis.


Left: A large lizard on a vertical rock face.
Photo: Valley of Fires, New Mexico 2005.

horned toad
horned toad

Horned toads, actually lizards, are fascinating creatures with heads that resemble medieval gargoyles and eyes that can swivel independently. Their skin can change colour a little to blend in with the background. They are usually quite docile, happily sitting on the palm of one's hand and even being a little hard to dislodge after discovering that it's a nice warm place to sit.
Horned toads have a rather restricted diet and they only really enjoy just one species of ants, which sadly are under threat from other species of ants invading from Mexico.
Photos: City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico 2005.

Texas toad Texas toad

Left: A Texas toad (Anaxyrus speciosus) clinging to a boulder South of Shafter, Texas. This amphibian was a long way from obvious water but breeds in transient pools left after rain. During dry weather it spends much of its time in a dormant state, hiding in burrows or cracks in mud or other damp places. This is the Texas State Amphibian.


Left: Never examine the flowers on a bush without looking underneath it first. Especially in Texas. An angry black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) photographed under a flowering Acacia in a canyon in the Big Bend National Park, Texas, April 1993.


Left: A green humming bird feeds on nectar from the flowers of desert milkweed Asclepias erosa by the road side adjacent to Turquoise Mountain near Chloride, Arizona. Asclepias flowers generally produce generous quantities of nectar, which may sometimes be seen forming droplets in the flower centres. They are attractive to bees, butterflies and humming birds.
Male green humming birds are quite territorial and may get upset by an unwary photographer getting too close to "their" flowering plant, which in the desert may be the only source of nectar for some distance. Being "buzzed" by these tiny birds is an interesting experience.


Left: This yellow millipede on limestone gravel by the Pecos river bridge near Langtry, Texas was about 4 in (100 mm) long and as thick as a pencil.
These millipedes are harmless, unlike some of their relatives in the tropical rain forests which have a deadly poisonous bite. They walk around freely in the open, scavenging for decaying vegetation. When disturbed, they roll up into a tight loop and can exude a brown liquid which is toxic to insects and presumably distasteful to birds, which seem to leave them alone.
Millipedes in Texas and elsewhere come in yellow, brown and black. As they grow, they periodically cast off their epidermis. These discarded relics and those from dead individuals can be found, bleached and white, throughout the deserts of the South-West.

grasshopper grasshopper

A variety of large grasshopper-type insects can be seen in the deserts of the world. They often remain motionless, relying on their excellent camouflage to hide them from predators.
Extreme left: Grasshopper (ca. 2 in) at Langtry, Texas.
Left: Large grasshopper in a bush near Marfa, Texas.