Cacti & Critters
Meet some of the Sonoran Desert’s most notable plants and animals
The Sonoran Desert is teeming with more than 2,000 native species of plants and nearly 700 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and freshwater fish. Keep an eye out for these common desert dwellers on your next adventure.
The Giant Saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and can grow to 50 feet in height. In the right conditions, saguaros can live for 150 to 200 years.
These common evergreen shrubs can live to be more than 100 years old. After a rare desert rain, they give off a fresh, unmistakable fragrance.
The barbed thorns of the fuzzy-looking Cholla have earned them the nickname “Velcro of the desert.” Hiking tip: carry a fine-toothed comb to flick away cholla buds that get attached to clothing or shoes.
The whip-like branches of the Ocotillo sport fiery red blossoms in the spring.
The Barrel Cactus tends to grow leaning toward the south, which is why it is also called the “compass” cactus. Mythbuster: Barrel cactus are not filled with potable water.
Both the pads and fruit of the prickly pear are edible. The pads, also called nopales, can be grilled or boiled and added to soups, stews and other meals. Juice from prickly pear fruit is used in drinks, syrups and candy.
The Sweet Mesquite, a staple for the Pima and Maricopa tribes, is known for its value as a medicinal plant and a source of food (the beans provide an excellent source of protein and low-glycemic carbohydrates).
It’s hard to miss the green, chlorophyll-bearing trunks and branches of the Palo Verde Tree. In the spring, palo verde burst into bloom with bright yellow flowers.
Coyotes are best known for their mournful howl, the signature sound of the Southwest. You’re most likely to hear coyotes howling around dusk as they prepare for the night’s hunt.
Staying true to its name, the roadrunner can reach ground speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. Known for its long tail and shaggy crest, roadrunners are very effective predators, capturing snakes, lizards and rodents.
Quail are gregarious birds that spend most of their time scurrying along the ground in search of food. Spot them by their black top-knots and gray plumage with white, chestnut and buff accents.
Resembling small wild boars, Javelina can weigh up to 55 pounds and live in groups of 2 to 20 animals. They have notoriously poor vision and rely mostly on their sense of smell.
These gentle creatures measure up to 14 inches when full grown and can live for up to 40 years. Note: Desert tortoises can be observed at close range but must never be picked up. They store water in their bladders and will release it if frightened, thereby depleting their precious water source.
Jackrabbits & Desert Cottontails
Jackrabbits are known for their huge ears, long hind legs and large feet. Desert Cottontails are the most abundant desert rabbits and feature smaller builds and shorter, rounded ears
Feisty Cactus Wrens are strikingly spotted and typically nest in saguaros, chollas and palo verde trees. The males often build several “dummy” nests before the female chooses one in which to lay her eggs.
Rattlesnakes spend most of their time under low-growing shrubs, rocks and other desert debris. These poisonous snakes are identified by the warning buzz of their rattle.
These large birds of prey can be identified by their dark brown bodies and long black-and-white tail feathers.
Great Horned Owl
Measuring nearly two feet tall, Great Horned Owls have white throats, striped undersides and prominent ear tufts.
Scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light, so a black light is a must for nocturnal scorpion hunting (though if you find one, observe it from a distance – their stings can cause localized pain and swelling that can be severe and, in very rare instances, fatal).
For more ideas and resources for exploring Scottsdale’s great outdoors, download the Desert Discovery Guide, which features trail listings and provides a comprehensive overview of the Sonoran Desert.