Sonoran Desert Habitat
This taxon is found in the Sonoran Desert, which comprises much of the state of Sonora, Mexico, most of the southern half of the USA states of Arizona, southeastern California, most of the Baja California peninsula, and the numerous islands of the Gulf of California. Its southern third straddles 30° north latitude and is a horse latitude desert; the rest is rainshadow desert. It is lush in comparison to most other deserts. There is a moderate diversity of faunal organisms present, with 550 distinct vertebrate species having been recorded here.
The visually dominant elements of the landscape are two lifeforms that distinguish the Sonoran Desert from the other North American deserts: legume trees and large columnar cacti. This desert also supports many other organisms, encompassing a rich spectrum of some 2000 species of plants, 550 species of vertebrates, and untolled thousands of invertebrate species.
The Sonoran Desert prominently differs from the other three deserts of North America in having mild winters. Most of the area rarely experiences frost, and the biota are partly tropical in origin. Many of the perennial plants and animals are derived from ancestors in the tropical thorn-scrub to the south, their life cycles attuned to the brief summer rainy season. The winter rains, when ample, support great populations of annuals (which make up nearly half of the plant species). Some of the plants and animals are opportunistic, growing or reproducing after significant rainfall in any season.
Creosote Bush (Larrea divaricata) and White Bursage (Ambrosia dumosa) vegetation characterize the lower Colorado River Valley section of the Sonoran. The Arizona upland section to the north and east is more mesic, resulting in greater species diversity and richness. Lower elevation areas are dominated by dense communities of Creosote Bush and White Bursage, but on slopes and higher portions of bajadas, subtrees such as palo verde (Cercidium floridum, C. microphyllum) and Ironwood (Olneya tesota), saguaros (Carnegiea gigantia), and other tall cacti are abundant. Cresosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) and White Bursage (Ambrosia dumosa) form the scrub that dominates the northwest part of the Sonoran Desert. This association thrives on deep, sandy soils in the flatlands. Where the dunes allow for slight inclination of the slope, species of Mesquite (Prosopis), Cercidium, Ironwood (Olneya tesota), Candalia, Lycium, Prickly-pear (Opuntia), Fouquieria, Burrobush (Hymenoclea) and Acacia are favored. The coastal plains of Sonora are composed of an almost pure Larrea scrub. Away from the Gulf influence in the area surrounding the Pinacate, Encelia farinosa, Larrea tridentata, Olneya, Cercidium, Prosopis, Fouquieria and various cacti species dominate the desert.
Many wildlife species, such as Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope (Antilocapra sonoriensis EN), Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) and the endemic Bailey's Pocket Mouse (Chaetodipus baileyi) use ironwood, cacti species and other vegetation as both shelter from the harsh climate as well as a water supply. Other mammals include predators such as Puma (Felis concolor), Coyote (Canis latrans) and prey such as Black-tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus), and the Round-tailed Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus tereticaudus). Other mammals able to withstand the extreme desert climate of this ecoregion include California Leaf-nosed Bat (Macrotus californicus) and Ring-tailed Cat (Bassariscus astutus).
Three endemic lizards to the Sonoran Desert are: the Coachella Fringe-toed Lizard (Uma inornata EN); the Flat-tail Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii NT); and the Colorado Desert Fringe-toed Lizard (Uma notata NT); an endemic whiptail is the San Esteban Island Whiptail (Cnemidophorus estebanensis). Non-endemic special status reptiles in the ecoregion include the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii VU) and the Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum NT).
There are twenty-four anuran species occurring in the Sonoran Desert, one of which is endemic, the Sonoran Green Toad (Anaxyrus retiformis). Other anurans in the ecoregion are: California Treefrog (Pseudacris cadaverina); Canyon Treefrog (Hyla arenicolor); Lowland Burrowing Frog (Smilisca fodiens); Mexican Treefrog (Smilisca baudinii); Madrean Treefrog (Hyla eximia); Sabinal Frog (Leptodactylus melanonotus); Northwest Mexico Leopard Frog (Lithobates magnaocularis); Brown's Leopard Frog (Lithobates brownorum); Yavapai Leopard Frog (Lithobates yavapaiensis); Mexican Cascade Frog (Lithobates pustulosus); Mexican Leaf Frog (Pachymedusa dacnicolor); Red Spotted Toad (Anaxyrus punctatus); Sinaloa Toad (Incilius mazatlanensis); Sonoran Desert Toad (Incilius alvarius); Eastern Green Toad (Anaxyrus debilis); New Mexico Spadefoot (Spea multiplicata); Great Plains Toad (Anaxyrus cognatus); Couch's Spadefoot Toad (Scaphiopus couchii); Cane Toad (Rhinella marina); Elegant Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne elegans); Little Mexican Toad (Anaxyrus kelloggi); Great Plains Narrowmouth Toad (Gastrophryne olivacea); and Woodhouse's Toad (Anaxyrus woodhousii).
The Sonoran Desert is recognized as an exceptional birding area. Forty-one percent (261 of 622) of all terrestrial bird species found in the USA can be seen here during some season of the year. The Sonoran Desert, together with its eastern neighbor the Chihuahuan Desert, is the richest area in in the USA for birds, particularly hummingbirds. Among the bird species found in the Sonoran Desert are the saguaro-inhabiting Costa's Hummingbird (Calypte costae), Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (Polioptila melanura), Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) and Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygualis). Perhaps the most well-known Sonoran bird is the Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), distinguished by its preference for running rather than flying, as it hunts scorpions, tarantulas, rattlesnakes, lizards, and other prey. The Sonoran Desert exhibits two endemic bird species, the highest level of bird endemism in the USA. The Rufous-winged Sparrow (Aimophila carpalis) is rather common in most parts of the Sonoran, but only along the central portion of the Arizona-Mexico border, seen in desert grasses admixed with brush. Rare in extreme southern Arizona along the Mexican border, the endemic Five-striped Sparrow (Aimophila quinquestriata) is predominantly found in canyons on hillsides and slopes among tall, dense scrub.