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*Joshua Tree

(Yucca brevifolia)
Joshua Tree Joshua Tree National Park is named after a tree called the Joshua Tree. These trees are found only in North America in the states of California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Most of the Joshua Trees are found in the Mojave Desert, at an elevation of 2000-6000 feet. The Joshua Tree, as well as the giant Saguaro Cactus, are symbols of our desert here in the Western United States. Joshua Trees belong to the Agave Family, but were once known as members of the Lily family. The name Joshua Tree came from the Mormons. They saw the trees and said that the trees reminded them of Joshua from the Bible days, calling them Westward with out-stretched arms. Desert animals use the Joshua Tree for shelter, and eat the Joshua Tree seeds. Early Native American Indians had many uses for the Joshua Tree, and they ate the seeds too. The Joshua Tree can grow from a seed or underground from part of another Joshua Tree. It is hard to tell how old a Joshua Tree is, because it doesn't have growth rings like other trees. It is said that Joshua Trees grow about 1/2 inch a year, and can live to be well over 100 years. This tree is not sturdy because it has shallow roots and is rather top heavy. The Joshua Tree blossom is cream-colored, and very beautiful. They bloom from February to April, and do not always bloom every year. Early settlers used the Joshua Tree for fences and fire wood, and many of the tallest ones were cut down for these purposes. Joshua Trees can grow up to 60 feet tall. Some people confuse the Joshua Tree with the Yucca, especially smaller Joshua Trees. The Yucca has a stiff scoop-shaped blade or needle, with white wispy "hairs" or fibers curling from it. The Joshua Tree blades are shorter, thinner, not quite as stiff as the Yucca, and have no fibers. Yuccas never become tall like trees, when Joshua Trees do. Some animals that have their home in and around Joshua Trees are The Cactus Wren, Scott's Oriole, Red-tailed Hawk, Yucca Night Lizard, Desert Termites, Yucca moths, and the Antelope ground squirrel.

*Hedgehog Cactus

Calico or Hedgehog Cactus
photo© Kevin Powell
(Echinocereus engelmanii)

Very common in Joshua Tree National Park. Usually found in groups of 5-15. Also called the Calico Cactus from the multi-colored spines. The flowers come in April or May and are a very beautiful magenta color.





*Cotton Top (Echinocactus polycephalus )

Found at 2000-5000 feet elevation on rocky slopes of the Mojave Desert. Native Americans ate the seeds and used parts of this cactus as a first aid for burns. They also used the ultra thick cactus needles for sewing needles. Flowers March to May.


*Buckhorn Cholla (Opuntia acanthocarpa)

2" wide flower with yellow-green petals. Flowers May to June. 2000-4000 feet elevation. Common at Red Rock, Nevada. "Acantho" taken from Greek meaning "prickly."

*Pancake Pricklypear (Opuntia chlorotica)

Large yellow flowers in May or June. Pads are often orientated toward the sun, so they have more light available for photosynthesis. Common in the Wonderland of Rocks area.

*Mojave Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha)

This common cactus has a pretty yellow flower. It can be found from the lower desert up to 4,500 feet. You can see this cactus at Cottonwood, around Barker Dam, and at the 29 Palms Visitor center. This cactus does well when it gets cold, but the cactus' skin can turn reddish in winter. Some type of prickly pear cactus grows in every state, except Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. They seldom live over 20 years.

*Devil Cholla (Opuntia parishii)

Found in dry, sandy flat areas at 3000-5000 feet elevation. Grows very low to the ground, and often looks dead and dehydrated. Also called the horse crippler. Can live up to 80 years. There are large patches of this cactus in the valley between Echo Rocks and Snickers.

*Grizzlybear or Old Man Cactus (Opuntia erinacea)

The long hair-like spines look like whiskers. Tolerant of cold. There are large patches of this cactus just past the old parking lot at the base of Queen Mountain.

*Teddybear Cholla or Jumping Cholla

(Opuntia bigelovii)

Teddy Bear Cholla

The barbed spines, if broken off in the skin, can travel through the body and emerge far from the place of entry. The thick, dense spiny branches look like a teddy bear's arms. At the Park, there is an outstanding stand at the Cholla Gardens in the Pinto Basin.






*Silver (or Golden) Cholla (Opuntia echinocarpa)

This is the nasty, hurtful cactus seen at many places in the Park. The barbed spines go in easy, but are difficult and painful to get out. The flowers are yellowish green and not all that pretty. They grow in sandy, gravelly soil, at 1000 to 4,000 feet elevation.






*Mohave Mound Cactus, Claret Cup (Echinocereus triglochidiatus)

The flowers of this cactus are scarlet red and one of the most beautiful flowers of the cacti at J.T. N.P. The flowers also remain open at night, while the flowers of the similar hedgehog close at night. They are located at 3,500-6,000 feet elevation. You can easily identify this cactus because it grows in cushion-like mounds. There is a very beautiful and large patch at the base of Popular Mechanic at the White Cliff of Dover Area. 

*Foxtail Cactus (Coryphantha vivipara)

This cactus has a very beautiful pale pink-lavender flower and grows 4-6 inches high. This cactus can be found in sandy ground areas up to 4,000 feet. I often see them in the washes and hills around 29 Palms. 








*Corkseed fishhook, Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria tetrancistra

This is one of the more rare, seldom seen cacti in the Park. It is also one of the few mammillaria in this area. It looks a lot like the foxtail cactus, but it's spines have hooks on the ends of them. It has interesting and cool red, cylindrical fruits. The flower is short lived and rose-pink in color. 

*Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata)

This is a very common plant at Joshua Tree National Park. It is a relative newcomer to the scene, evolutionally speaking, arriving around 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.

They are slow growers and a 1 foot tall plant is around 10 years old. As they grow, the older branches die off and the stem crowns split into separate crowns. The original part dies off and the new "clone" lives on. This process continues as the plant clones spread across the ground in a circular pattern. One clonal creosote ring found North of Joshua Tree was 45 feet in diameter, and dubbed "King Clone". It was carbon dated at almost 12,000 years old, making it the oldest living thing on the planet.

Many desert animals depend on the creosote bush for food and shelter. Native Indians used the creosote for many uses, including cures for colds, bruises/wounds, kidney pains, and diarrhea.

Today and extract from the bush if now marketed as a cure for herpes and another extract is being investigated as an anti-cancer drug.

*Beavertail Cactus

(Opuntia basilaris)

Beavertail Cactus Beavertail cactus have been around this area for almost 20,000 years. Native Americans used the pulp of beavertail cacti on cuts and wounds. The beautiful flowers are rose to magenta. They grow on slopes up to 6000 feet. Even though they are common around here, they are considered rare to world collectors. They are presently being threatened by residential development and off-road vehicles.






*Desert Tortoise


Tortoises are a member of the reptile family and have been around in their present form for millions of years. The tortoise's shell protects it form all predators except man. Some grow up to 12 inches or more. Their camouflaged color helps them blend into the desert environment and makes them very difficult to see. When they decide to go somewhere, they can travel at about 20 feet per minute. They are cold-blooded and cannot control their temperature. They eat about as much as other desert animals but can go up to 1 year without food if need be. Tortoises hibernate during the cold winter. They can also go a month without water, but they are big drinkers when water is available. The females lay 2-6 snow-white eggs in a shallow nest sometime between June and November. Tortoises live longer than any other vertebrate, including man. One was reported to live 152 years old. Before protection laws, many were taken away from the desert for pets. Often when brought to the city for pets, they get sick and die. If you are lucky enough to see one in the wild, leave this gentle creature alone . HANDS OFF, PARDNER!



photo© Kevin Powell
Tarantulas are the largest spiders in North America. They are 2-5 inches long and covered with thousands of fine tiny dark hairs. Tarantulas have many enemies; lizards, snakes, birds, and humans. These spiders are often seen in the fall, which is when the males are out searching for a mate. After the mating ritual, the female often eats the male for nutrition so she can lay 500-1,000 eggs. Tarantulas eat beetles and grasshoppers, and will also eat small lizards, mice, and even scorpions. They chase down their prey and inject them with venom. The tarantula secretes digestive juices into it's paralyzed victim, and sucks up the liquefied meal.

The tarantula is a shy creature and will not bite unless seriously provoked. I also understand that it's fangs are curved and semi-flexible, making it even more difficult to bite humans anyways. Females can live up to 25 years. Please be kind to all tarantulas, as well as all living creatures everywhere. Look, but don't touch, bother, hurt, or molest. They are part of the balance in the desert ecosystem and deserving of our respect.

*Black Widow Spider (Genus Lactrodectus )

The black widow weighs less than a paper clip, yet sends a heavy dose of fear in most people's hearts. A black widow bite is painful, but rarely fatal. In fact, there have been only 8 confirmed fatalities from a black widow bite. Black widows are shy by nature, and bite only when provoked. Each of the black widow's legs are tipped with claws, which makes it an excellent climber. The female black widow is the one with the red hourglass on it's underside. The female is also the one with the venom.. Male black widows are totally harmless to humans, and don't resemble the females. Black widow spiders make messy webs, not beautiful symmetric designs like some other spiders. These spiders rarely wander, and usually stay on their webs. First aid treatment for a spider bite is rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

*Brown Recluse Spider (Looseness deserta)

The Brown recluse spider has a fearsome reputation. Factually speaking, there have been no proven deaths from a brown recluse spider. The brown recluse spider, like the black widow, is a shy creature by nature. Brown recluse spiders are smaller than black widow spiders, and do not have the striking markings of the black widow, making them more difficult to identify. Both sexes of the brown recluse are poisonous, when only the female black widow has the venom. The brown recluse has sex eyes, while most spiders have eight. This spider makes a messy web, not a beautiful , patterned one. There are six species of brown recluse in North America. Recluse spiders will hang out at their webs, but also like to wander about. First aid treatment for a spider bite is rest, ice, compression, and elevation..

*Desert Bighorn Sheep

photo© Kevin Powell
Seeing a Desert Bighorn sheep in the wild is and awesome and exciting sight. Often times we see signs of the sheep, but not the sheep themselves. How many times have you been out climbing and seen their footprints on trails and in washes, or their pellets high up on rocky boulders and cliffs? They are difficult to see because they blend in very well with their surroundings. They are shy creatures, and there aren't a lot of them around.

Large males can grow up to 5 feet in length, and about 3 and a half feet tall. They can weigh up to 300 lbs. The Bighorn Sheep population is low for a number of reasons. Domestic sheep brought into the west for grazing introduced scabies and other diseases to the wild Bighorn Sheep. Then came settlers, miners, travelers, and uncontrolled hunting. Bighorn populations were quickly and drastically reduced, and by 1883, they were put on the protected list. Even though they are protected, poaching has always been a problem..

They get most of their water from the plants they subsist on. During lambing season (Mar./April), the female will have one lamb. A sheep's life-span depends on tooth wear and their ability to bite and chew food properly. The male's coiled horns are often broken at the tips, due to the fact that they use their horns for prying up rocks looking for food. Bighorn Sheep rely mostly on their keen sense of sight to spot enemies. They also have an acute sense of hearing, but this is often dulled by the numerous ticks which fill their ear passages.

A great place to see Bighorn sheep (especially May-Sept.) is at Barker Dam, in the early morning or late evening. I have also seen Bighorn Sheep on Ryan Mountain, Wonderland, near the west entrance, Split Rocks area, and Covington Flats.




photo© Kevin Powell
No animal represents the desert as well as the coyote. Most nights of the year, I go to sleep to the howls and yips of the coyotes outside my bedroom window. Coyotes silently hunt at night and sleep during the day. coyotes eat meat; rodents, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, mice, and rabbits. When very hungry, they will eat plants and berries. When very, very hungry, they will eat almost anything; bugs, dead animals, or garbage. Their adaptable and varied diet is one of their great survival techniques. Coyotes help keep Mother Nature in balance by eating harmful or disease carrying rodents. Coyotes are a desirable and indispensable part of the desert's ecological balance.

Coyotes dig "coyote wells" when water gets scarce. Coyote wells are holes dug by coyotes to reach underground water when there is none on the surface. Coyote wells are usually found at the foot of "dry" waterfalls in sandy areas. once dug by coyotes, other creatures, including birds and bees, use this newly dug water source.

Coyotes have their young, once a year, in underground dens. These dens are usually not excavated by the coyotes themselves, but obtained by kicking out the inhabitants (badgers or squirrels), then enlarging the dens to suit their needs. Usually, 5 or 6 pups are born at a time. There have been cases of coyotes born in captivity that are raised like a domestic dog, tame and loyal to their master.

I have lost 2 pet cats to coyotes, and my dog received a long gash on his hind quarter from a coyote bite. Coyotes are wiley, scrappy survivors, and truly the desert dogs. They deserve our respect.


Next to rodents, the order chiroptera (hard-winged) is the most numerous order of living mammals with over 2000 living species. Most people know little of bats, because they are out only at night. In most mammals, the back legs are larger than the front legs, this is not true with bats. Bats are true flying creatures, and their bodies are built for flight. Because they are flyers, their movement on the ground is clumsy and awkward. Desert bats have sharp teeth, used to crush up crunchy insect parts. Bats have glandular pads and various skin appendages on their faces that make them look ugly and scary. Their function is sensory. Bats also have delicate hairs on the face and on the ends of their toes, giving them a refined sense of touch. Their small eyes probably can only distinguish light from darkness. By means of a radar system of echolocation, bat fly around in tight quarters in a perfect darkness without crashing into anything. This radar system is also used in finding their food. The German word for bats is Fledermaune (fluttering mice). Bats are gregarious animals, hunting together at night and roosting together to sleep. Because they are often in groups, they pass parasite from one animal to the nest. When female bats give birth, it is usually only one, maybe two babies. Baby bats cling to their mothers while roosting or flying. Resting bats can lower their body temperatures to slightly above outside temperatures. Bats have few enemies. Their musky orders make them unattractive to all but the most hungry predators. Bats eat 1/3 to 1/2 of their weight each night in insects. Because of this, they are beneficial to humans, eating troublesome, destructive, or disease carrying insects.

Cottontail  (Sylvilagus audaboni)

The desert has 2 rabbits; the jack rabbit and the cottontail. Cottontails are found from sea level to as high as 7500 feet in the desert mountains. They live underground in holes that they dig themselves, or took over from a ground squirrel or other burrowing animal. These holes always have one or two outlets, in case they are chased by a digging predator. The babies are born in March or April and are harmless and blind. There are usually 2 to 6 young in each litter. Cottontails often make a thumping noise with their back legs; maybe a warning sign to other cottontails that danger is near? They are sought often by many predators and rely on their quickness and erratic running to evade being caught.







*Desert Lynx (Bobcat)

These desert wildcats are night hunters, and usually sleep or hide during the day. If very hungry, they will hunt during the day. Bobcats are excellent hunters and are very quick for short bursts of speed. Having comparatively small lungs, they will usually run and hide rather than run long distances. Kittens are born late spring or early summer. There are usually 3 or 4 kittens and they look quite like domestic kittens. Bobcats eat harmful and disease carrying rodents, and sick or weak quails. Wildcat populations are declining, as urban development keeps on taking over their habitat. I see bobcats quite often in my neighborhood in Joshua Tree, and it's always a fantastic and awesome treat. These beautiful and wild creatures play an important role in keeping the balance in the desert environment. Hunting or trapping bobcats is inexcusable.






Jack Rabbit

Jack Rabbit
photo© Kevin Powell
Seems like the Jack Rabbit has it tough. There are lots of desert predators that want to eat jackrabbits. People hunt jackrabbits. Diseases plague its life. Cars and trucks run over jackrabbits. Yet, like the energizer bunny, he keeps on keepin' on. The Jack Rabbit survives perhaps, because he is really to run away at the slightest noise, movement or danger. Jack rabbits often has like, mites and fleas. To combat these parasites, they "dust" themselves. We see signs of jackrabbits throughout the desert. We see plants chewed down by jackrabbits and we see them dropping everywhere. Rabbits must eat a lot for their average number of pellet droppings each day is 531! Jackrabbits are classified in their own separate group called agomorphe (animals of rabbit-like form). Rabbits really rely on their hearing to protect them from predators. They often shift their ears in an effort to detect any sound or possible danger. Rabbits have many enemies; coyotes, bobcats, large predatory birds, snakes and humans (especially in their cars!). Rattlesnakes can sense the presence of baby rabbit just from their body heat only. Jackrabbit babies are quite different that babies of other rabbits, and are born fully furred, quite active, and ask open eyes. Early native Indians hunted jackrabbits for food and for their soft fur. Drought greatly affects the jackrabbit population, which affects other animals in the food chain.






(Sauromalus obesus)

"Sauromalus" means flat lizard;"obesus " means fat...there you have it; Fat, flat lizard. These beautiful lizards are always found in rocky areas. They are often seen sunbathing on top of rocks, but when alarmed, they hide in cracks and crevices. More than once, I've seen and heard them scurrying in cracks while I've been on a climb. They can and do sit unmoving for long periods of time, but can move quite quickly , even leaping from rock to rock. When full-grown, they may be up to 20 inches long. Besides their camoflauged coloring and their stillness, another survival trait is their ability to puff themselves up with air so they are almost impossible to extract from cracks. This vegetarian lizard was always a great favorite in the diet of the desert Indians. To get the swollen lizard out of cracks, they would "pop" them with a sharp stick, then roast them over an open fire. Some people enjoy chuchawallas for pets, but they do bite, are fully protected in Joshua Tree National Park, and often get sick and die in city environments. This cool lizard is part of the fragile desert environment and deserves our respect. Look , but don't steal, bother, harass, or molest. I often see them in my backyard, on my property in Joshua Tree. They can be frightening if you are surprised by ( or more) on a climb. The route "Scream Chuck" in Indian Cove, was named after the first ascent party was surprised by a chuckawalla in the crack. I was startled by two big ones on the belay ledge at the top of Monico in Indian Cove. It's always cool to see chuckawallas.


Roadrunner, roadrunner, coyote's after you. The roadrunner prankster on T.V. is loved by all for his mellow stealth and sly tactics it uses against the determined coyote. In reality, the roadrunner isn't such a fun-loving underdog, but a fierce and cruel hunter. Roadrunners have an unusual and cruel practice with their young. A roadrunner nest may have 4 or 5 eggs, and that might be too much a burden for mother. The solution is simple; the last ones to hatch don't get fed and die. The deceased hatchlings, in turn, end up a meal for mom and the surviving babies. Roadrunners have no teeth or sharp beak for tearing or shredding. The feed on insects, lizards, and small snakes, and eat by swallowing their food whole. Roadrunners will even attack, fight, and eat baby rattlesnakes. If their dinner is too wiggly or large, they thrash it repeatedly against the ground until it is lifeless, tenderized, and easier to swallow. This desert predator prefers running to flying, and can run up to 17 miles per hour. It is common in the Joshua Tree National Park, and is also the New Mexico State bird. Living in the dry desert is a tough environment for a ground bird. To save water, it reabsorbs water from it's feces before excretion. It is also quick enough to snatch a hummingbird from mid-air. The lifespan of the roadrunner is about 7-8 years.

Small Scale Lizard




Gopher Snake


Desert Iguana




Geological History


The California deserts have been the way they are today. (hot, dry) for only the last 10,000 years. Before that, conditions were quite different. Within the last geological epoch (Pleistocene), the climate as well as the plants and animals were different. There was more rain, cooler temperatures, and snow on the mountaintops year round. Oak trees, junipers and pine trees dotted the high desert, and Joshua trees flourished in the low Desert. Giant mammals freely roamed this area; mammoths, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, horses, camels, and antelopes.

When the continents rose, the shallow continental seas disappeared. This created more land masses, which reflected the suns heat, instead of absorbed it like the seas did. This contributed to global cooling. Also the continents drifted to higher latitudes, where continental snows wouldn't melt so easily. Our last ice age (Wisconsin) began 120,000 years ago and just ended 10,000 years ago. Huge frozen glaciers covered much of N. America, and went as far south as lower. Isolated glaciers capped many of western mountains, including San Gorgonio and San Jacinto.

Today the Mojave Desert gets around 3-5 inches of rain a year. One million years ago it was receiving 8-15 inches a year, temperatures each month were probably about 10 F. cooler then from now. Moisture didn't evaporate as much with the cooler temperatures, which allowed for the different plant and animal communities. Also large lakes were found around the region as well. White Water River flowed into Lake Cahuilla (now Salton Sea), Mojave River flowed into Soda Lake, Owens River flowed into Lake Manly (Death Valley). These rivers were all lined with willow, cottonwood, and alder trees.

The large mammals of the day had to have been awesome. Dire wolves (larger and stronger then today's wolves) were found throughout the southwest. Saber-toothed cats (about the size of today's Africa lions) roamed through what is now the Mojave and Anza-Borrego Deserts. Giant horse fossils have been found in the Coachella Valley near Indio.

Prongback Antelope were also in this region, surviving up until only a few hundred years ago. The American lion, larger than any lion or tiger today, lived here, and it's fossils have been found in California's deserts (as well as the La Brea Tar Pits in L.A.). Herds of Buffalo were here as well, and their fossils have been found in Thousand Palms, in Riverside County. These buffalo were larger than today's buffalo, and had larger horns as well.

Elephant (or Mammoth) fossils have been found near Indio and the Salton Sea. These mammoths stood over 13 feet tall, taller than any elephant today.

Giant Sloths inhabited this area. They stood over 8 feet tall and had massive claws to protect themselves. Fossilized Giant Sloth dung has shown that they were herbivores, and even ate agaves, yuccas and Joshua Trees.

Giant Camels lived here and maybe survived longer than many of the other giant mammals. It is possible that there were camels in N. America as little as 8000 years ago.

The disappearance of these giant mammals is probably a combination of climatic changes and the introduction of man to the area. Even in modern times, we have caused the extinction of the California Grizzly, eliminated wolves from California, and greatly threatened the big horn sheep populations.