The deserts of New Mexico may seem sparse, but do have a surprising amount of life? When it rains roughly 9 inches per year, how can anything survive?!

How Do Things Keep Growing in the Deserts of the American South West?

I recently had the opportunity to visit New Mexico! It wasn’t surprising how different it looked. After all, New Mexico is a desert and PA is clearly not. What did amaze was that there were so many more plants and animals than I expected! These life forms had some incredible adaptations to help them survive in their ecosystem.

ven diagram of PA vs NM

Above are some similarities and differences that stood out to me. For a desert climate that only gets around 9 inches of rain/year (whereas PA averages at 41 inches/year), it’s amazing anything lives at all!

For example, many plants are cacti. These cacti have thick, waxy cuticles to prevent water loss. The spines of the cacti prevent other animals from getting too close and eating through (although animals always find a way!). Even the flower buds look almost rubber-like! There is a cactus that’s native to Pennsylvania (Prickly Pear), but they are not as wide-spread as the many cactus species of New Mexico.

How can plants survive in a desert? It's not as hard if you're a cactus!
This Cane Cholla Cactus is one of many cactus species seen just in the Valley of Fires park! Many others had small bites taken out of their thick skin by rodents and other small animals.

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!

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! Just as trees in PA are planted to help with soil retention, plants in White Sands do that too. 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 go through 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!

What strange adaptations do desert plants have? These Yuccas have a larger than life adaptation to desert survival.
These Yucca plants may look as if they’re 3-4 feet tall, but their roots and trunk may go down further, we just see the leaves and flower of the plant.


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 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. Lizards, like the Little Whiptail, are very speedy (makes them hard to photograph!) which keeps their feet from touching the hot ground for too long.

little whiptail
This Little Striped Whiptail lizard knows how to dig for insects and get cool before it darts across the sand to take shelter in the shade!


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 this all seems amazing to someone who is a born and raised Pennsylvanian, animals here also have some incredible adaptations to help them survive here! After all, if I were to have brought home those plants or animals (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 this environment.

Interested in learning more about PA (specifically Bucks County) animal adaptations? Check out our Animal Adaptation school program or birthday parties by clicking here! The trails here at BCAS are open dawn-dusk and while walking them, you will be able to see that ducks in our pond, caddisflies in our streams, plants in our often rainy forests, and birds in our meadows are especially suited for beautiful PA! Also check out these links to get some more information about the natural sites that I visited!

White Sands National Monument

Lincoln National Forest

Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge

Valley of Fires




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