Desert Exploration

Since we are hearing about record breaking temperatures across the country, especially in the arid southwest, it only seems appropriate that we take some time to look at areas we know as deserts. Deserts are extremely diverse and interesting ecosystems. You are probably familiar with many of the desert dwelling species at our Zoo.

Of course, the first animals that come to mind are the camels, but we also have the Addax antelope, Gila monster, Bearded Lizard and a variety of desert living snakes.I recently had the opportunity to visit a couple of the desert areas in the southwestern U.S. People have a misconception that all deserts are barren, inhospitable places with little or no life. I can say from personal experience that the desert is amazing to see and experience.

I spent time in the Mojave Desert of California and Death Valley, where the hottest temperature on Earth was recorded at a whopping 134 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, right now, that record is on the verge of being broken. Luckily when I was there it was only 115 degrees. Heat is only one factor that some desert creatures have to deal with. Did you know that not all deserts are hot? What makes adesert a desert is the dryness. Deserts, by definition, are areas that get less than 10 inches of precipitation in a year.Desert.

Deserts are home to a fascinating group of animals and plants that live in some really extreme conditions. I saw a wide variety of desert wildflowers, yuccas and even cactus. Prickly Pear Cactus is quitecommon, not only in the desert, but in neighboring mountainous areas.

Did you know prickly pear actually can be found in Kentucky? Yuccas are often grown in our gardens, but wild yuccas, which include the Joshua tree, are also quite common in the Mojave region. The Joshua tree is so common in one area of California that there is a national park, the Joshua Tree National Park, created around them. Many animals in the desert are nocturnal, and even though they may not be seen during the daylight hours, they often leave signs of their presence. In the dune areas of Death Valley, I saw lots of tracks left in the sand: bobcats, birds, rodents, lizards and desert sidewinders.

The sidewinder is a snake you can see in the nocturnal area of the HerpAquarium. Sidewinders leave unusual tracks. The heat of the sand is so hot that no snake would want its whole body touching it at one time, so the sidewinder has developed a way of moving that only requires two points of its body to touch the ground at any given time. A variety of other reptiles such as tortoises and lizardswere quite active during my visit. I spotted a number of Zebra Tailed lizards and Collared lizards along the trails and boardwalks in the area. Probably the most interesting animal I was lucky enough to encounter was the Salt Creek Desert pupfish.

Yes, there are fish in the desert. Salt Creek is a small spring-fed stream that flows in a region of Death Valley. The creek was flowing well when I visited, which allowed me the opportunity to witness the spawning and movement of hatchling Salt Creek pupfish. These fish are the remnants of a much wetter time in the valley going back to the last Ice Age. The fish have evolved to live in the extreme conditions left behind as the area became drier. The water itself is now saltier than the ocean. The pupfish has survived in seasonal streams and pools and can be seen when the springs are pumping water.

That water originates in the more mountainous regions that border the desert. The pupfish feed on the few nutrients that the plant and animal life in the area create. The few pupfish populations found at scattered sights throughout the desert are considered highly endangered. In drier years, the number of some populations has decreased to less than 100.

The Earth offers a wide variety of habitats, some more extreme than others. Even in those areas that humans find to be inhospitable, such as the desert, creatures have found ways to survive. Learning more about those animals and plants, whether in the desert or in your own backyard, can be a fascinating exercise in understanding more about the world around us.