These beautiful flowers attracted many pollinators out in the New Mexico desert!
Adaptations, Plants, The Art of Ecology, Travel, Wildlife Behavior

How can life still occur in the desert of the American Southwest?

Traveling, especially to places that look and feel different than Pennsylvania where I have lived for all of my life, is so exciting! Fortunately for me, I had the chance to go out to New Mexico to do some photography this past summer! It was amazing to see how many plants and animals that a desert could house. For a climate that only gets around 9 inches of rain/year it’s amazing anything lives at all, but everything has their own adaptations to help them survive.

For example, many plants have thick, waxy layers, called cuticles, to prevent excess water loss. The spines of the cacti prevent other animals from getting too close and eating through (although animals always find a way!). Even buds look thick and rubbery!

This Cane Cholla is one of many cactus species in the Valley of Fires, a strip of igneous rock formations that runs through the desert.
This Cane Cholla is one of many cactus species in the Valley of Fires, a strip of igneous rock formations that runs through the desert.

While it may be uncommon to see groundwater, it’s really not that far underground! The roots of trees and plants go down deep to take advantage of this and in a location like White Sands National Monument, you can even dig your toes into the sand (actually, it’s gypsum that’s been deposited by runoff from the San Andreas and Sacramento Mountains) and feel how much cooler it gets!

The sign says "Gypsum from the San Andreas Mountains is being carried down and deposited in the Tularosa Basin, creating the White Sands."
The sign says “Gypsum from the San Andreas Mountains is being carried down and deposited in the Tularosa Basin, creating the White Sands.”

In White Sands, you can see a variety of scraggly looking plants such as Yucca. These can continue growing even when their trunk is completely covered! Trees and plants are great for soil retention. As wind blows the gypsum around, it collects at the base of the Yucca which will continue to grow, no matter how tall a dune builds up around it. As long as its leaves are exposed to the sunlight, it can undergo photosynthesis and grow. In fact, there are very small Yuccas that look as if they are only 1-2ft. tall, when really, they are 10+ ft. and are simply buried!

Who knows how tall these Yucca plants actually are! Their trunks and roots go down deep.
Who knows how tall these Yucca plants actually are! Their trunks and roots go down deep.

It’s not just plants that need to survive though, animals do too! Animals in New Mexico have unique behavioral and morphological adaptations that help them survive the heat and lack of water. Many animals are crepuscular (out at dawn and dusk) or nocturnal to make sure that they avoid the heat and sun of the day. Those animals have a burrow or cave that they sleep in during the day to keep them cool. Diurnal animals, like the Jack Rabbit, make sure to rest in the shade often before heading to their next hiding spot! Their big ears also help to release heat and keep them cool.

This female hummingbird has some incredible adaptations to help her survive in the wild. Here in Bosque Del Apache, her needs are met with the nectar from many flowers!
This female hummingbird has some incredible adaptations to help her survive in the wild. Here in Bosque Del Apache, her needs are met with the nectar from many flowers!

Hummingbirds can handle higher body temperatures, which is great in warm environments. They also know how to take advantage of the beautiful plants around them and can be seen darting around in search of nectar to keep them fueled, which in turn helps the plants survive by pollinating them. Lizards, like the Little Striped Whiptail, are very speedy (making them hard to photograph!) which keeps their feet from touching the hot ground for too long.

This Little Whiptail digs in the dirt in search of groundwater. It's amazing how much cooler the gypsum gets even just one inch down!
This Little Whiptail digs in the dirt in search of groundwater. It’s amazing how much cooler the gypsum gets even just one inch down!

In terms of water, many small mammals and reptiles rely heavily on metabolic moisture. When an animal eats a seed or an insect it retains most of the water that it’s food had and therefore doesn’t need to drink nearly as often, if at all. In fact, when the reptiles excrete waste, it is often a very dry, almost powdery substance called uric acid. This prevents water loss. Other animals, specifically rodents, have specialized kidneys that are able to remove water from the toxins in their urine and recycle it in their body.

While I really wanted a New Mexican Bird of Paradise flower for my garden and a Pocket Mouse or Quail family, they would be unsuited to the PA environment and not survive. It’s amazing how animals and plants are so unique and fit so well into their habitat!

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Some of my personal favorites from the trip I took in 2017 to Alamogordo, New Mexico! Highlights are from: the base of the San Andreas Mountain Range, Lincoln National Forest, White Sands National Monument, Bosque del Apache, and Fires National Park.
Some of my personal favorites from the trip I took in 2017 to Alamogordo, New Mexico! Highlights are from: the base of the San Andreas Mountain Range, Lincoln National Forest, White Sands National Monument, Bosque del Apache, and Fires National Park.

 

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