Mammals in the living desert

Although it is far easier to find birds in the southwestern deserts, more than 100 mammal species live there too, a few in some of the harshest and most challenging environments.  Most are usually active only at night or in the twilight that precedes sunrise or follows sunset.  Why?  Because daytime temperatures can be very hot, water is limited so keeping cool by evaporation is dangerous, and there aren’t very many places to retreat to cool shade.

Sonoran desert at Palm Desert, CA

No place to hide from the heat in this leafless, spiny forest of cactus, unless you’re a small, burrowing rodent.

Mammals cope with the heat by avoiding it, storing it, unloading it, or offsetting it by consuming the water-filled bodies of their prey.  Here are a few examples of these strategies in mammals of the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert, CA.

Avoiding the heat: bats, rodents, kit fox, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat

Big carnivores need to retreat to sheltered crevices or caves during the hot daytime hours, while mice can keep cool in underground burrows.  Their dense fur is an adaptation to keep them warm on clear, cold desert nights, and in the winter.  In addition, water lost by panting to keep cool can be replaced by the body water in their prey.  Their home range might even include a water source like a spring or pool.

Mountain Lion, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Bobcat, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Coyote, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Storing the heat: pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep

Large-bodied herbivores can’t escape the heat, so they tolerate it by storing it in their large body mass, and allowing their body temperatures to fluctuate several degrees over the course of the day.  Heat gained during the daytime can be unloaded by radiation or convective cooling at night.  Bighorn sheep can withstand dehydration for several days (to a level that would kill a human) and can replenish all of their body water immediately upon drinking.

Pronghorn Antelope, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA Bighorn Sheep, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Unloading the heat:  jackrabbits, mule deer

Both deer and rabbits seek shade during the day, but use their very large and well vascularized ears to radiate heat away from their body.

Mule deer, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA Jackrabbit, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Fennec foxes from Saharan and Arabian deserts use a similar strategy to unload heat from highly vascularized, over-sized ears. Apparently the large surface area of their ears also helps them hear prey moving around under ground.  It’s interesting to see such convergence of strategies in unrelated animals from different continents.

Fennec, Fox, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

And what about the unlovely Javelina?

Javelina, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

They look ill-suited to be desert dwellers with their short extremities, stocky bodies, and bristly hair.

Their solution to the challenges of desert life?  Live near the water and stay in the shade, for example, under a trailer!

Birds in the living desert

On our way back now to Minnesota, staying as far south for warmth and sunshine as we can, we found a very nice exhibit of Sonoran desert plants and animals at the Living Desert Zoo and botanic garden in Palm Desert, Southern California.  All the typical animals were on display, as well as the many types and forms of desert adapted plants, which kept us busy walking the trails of this 1000 acre preserve for several hours.

Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Vegetation varied between very dry cacti gardens, somewhat wetter acacia and palo verde forests, and palm oases.

Unfortunately, it was a chilly, overcast morning, and the wildlife was sparse, very quiet, and somewhat lethargic.

Verdin, Palm Desert, CA

Chilly weather doesn’t slow down busy little insectivores, like Verdins, though.  Read more about these tiny, but highly successful desert birds at

Roadrunner, Palm Desert, CA

The Roadrunner looked miserable, fluffing its meager feathers out and hunching up to conserve warmth. When Roadrunners get cold, they like to bask in the sun, spreading their back feathers to let the sun shine directly on the black skin on their backs. Alas, no sun today!

Mockingbird, Palm Desert, CA

Even the Mockingbird looked cold, and was reluctant to move, even when we crept up quite close.

juvenile White-crowned Sparrow

Small flocks of juvenile (like this bird) and adult White-crowned Sparrows foraged for seeds beneath the cacti.


It’s always fun to find the “black cardinals” in the tree tops. On a gray day like this one, all you can usually see is a silhouette. A brief glimpse of the sun helped light up this male.  Phainopepla are members of the silly flycatcher family (i.e., not a cardinal at all) and are usually found in desert oases in the tropics.  The northern edge of their range extends into the Central Valley of California.

Male Costa’s Hummingbird

The great variety of flowering perennials present in the Living Desert should have attracted quite a few hummingbirds. Curators of the park thought it might be too cold for them to be out today.  We found this one bright male Costa’s Hummer at a nectar feeder.

Female Costa’s Hummingbird

Meanwhile, a female Costas’s Hummingbird fed on the nectar of tiny purple flowers of a shrubby mint.