10 Living Things Thriving in Death Valley

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There’s a reason it’s called Death Valley. This vast expanse of the Mojave Desert gets less than 2 inches of rain per year, the daytime temperatures can reach upwards of 120 degrees, and the landscape is so salt-laden and windswept that it’s nearly impossible for anything to take root. But there’s more life in Death Valley than you’d imagine. Here are 10 stubborn plants and animals that refuse to retire to greener pastures.

1. The Rat with a Drinking Problem

Like many Death Valley residents, the kangaroo rat lives for the nightlife. It spends most of its day napping underground, only venturing out after sunset. Of course, taking advantage of the cool nighttime temps is a common trick among desert mammals. What’s not common is how the kangaroo rat has adapted to deal with the scarcity of water: It never drinks the stuff! Special organs inside its nose allow it to absorb moisture directly from the air, and highly efficient kidneys keep its body hydrated. In fact, the kangaroo rat is so well adapted to the dry climate that even after living in captivity for years, it will still refuse water.

2. The Fish That Got Lucky in Las Vegas

Despite its bone-dry landscape, Death Valley is home to thousands of pupfish. The colorful, sardine-like fish live in isolated waterholes only a few feet wide. But how did all those aquatic animals get lured into the desert? The pupfish are actually stragglers from the ice age 10,000 years ago, back when the valley was a large glacial lake. As the glaciers melted, schools of pupfish became trapped in the waterholes and evolved into several distinct species. Today, the water in the small ponds can be as warm as a bath (around 90 degrees F), and the salt concentrations can exceed twice that of seawater. The conditions aren’t ideal, but the pupfish survive by drinking copious amounts of water and efficiently excreting the salt through their digestive tracts.

Life for the pupfish has become even more difficult in recent years. Beginning in the 1960s, farmers near Death Valley started pumping the desert’s groundwater for irrigation, which depleted the waterholes and caused serious declines in pupfish populations. One particular species, the Devils Hole pupfish, came close to extinction in 2006 when its numbers dipped below 40. But then an unlikely savior emerged: the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The casino relocated several pupfish to its swank aquariums, successfully reviving the species before its luck dried out.

3. The Plant That Outshines the Sun

It’s no secret that Death Valley is a tricky place for plants to take root. The earth there is so salty that it would kill most vegetation. But the Desert Holly has developed a clever technique for dealing with the unfriendly soil. The low-growing shrub soaks up the salt in the ground along with any moisture, and then, during blooming season from January to April, it excretes the sodium deposits onto its leaves. As a result, the plant turns from green to silver—a color change that helps it reflect the scalding sunlight instead of absorbing it.

4. The Bird You Don’t Want Your Children to See

Death Valley is home to the most iconic of desert birds—the roadrunner. Thanks to its Looney Tunes fame, the bird has become quite a tourist attraction. At the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center, sightseers can view roadrunners from large glass windows, and park officials often shout “meep, meep!” as they approach. However, the roadrunners don’t frequent the visitor’s center for the attention; they’re looking for fresh meat. Unlike their cartoon counterpart, real-life roadrunners are skilled hunters that use their lightning-quick speed to catch mice, insects, and snakes. They’re also pretty sly. Some of these clever creatures have figured out that if they wait by the visitor’s center, sooner or later a tasty bird will accidentally fly into the glass windows. The roadrunners then pounce on the stunned animal, ripping it apart and eating it in front of the horrified onlookers, Tasmanian Devil-style.

5. The Tortoise You Can Scare to Death

The desert tortoise has a simple solution for coping with Death Valley’s extreme heat: it avoids it. The slow-moving creature hibernates during the winter and stays in its burrow for much of the summer, meaning that it spends more than 90 percent of its life immobile. In fact, the tortoise usually only surfaces after a good rain. Then, it gets to work.

The tortoise stocks up on water by eating plants and digging trenches to collect rain. But to stay hydrated through its extended hibernation, the reptile relies on something else—its highly sophisticated bladder. Unlike most animals, the tortoise’s bladder acts as a holding tank, allowing it to reabsorb water back into its body. Incredibly, a desert tortoise can go a full year without taking in any fresh water at all. And because its bladder is so important to a tortoise’s survival, park rangers often remind visitors not to stop and help the slow-movers across the road. Tortoises become so terrified when people pick them up that they void their bladders, losing their precious water reserves.

6. The Bird with Legs You Never Want to Eat

The turkey vulture primarily feasts on decomposing animals, but that’s not the most disgusting thing about it. To stay cool, the vulture makes use of a process known asurohydrosis, a fancy way of saying that it pees on its legs to keep from overheating. This serves two purposes: the evaporating urine cools the blood circulating through the vulture’s legs, and also acts as a disinfectant, killing any germs the scavenger may have picked up from its last meal. You know you’re a dirty animal when peeing on your own legs actually makes you cleaner.

7. Seeds of Greatness

Every so often, Death Valley reveals a rare and beautiful display of life—a sea of colorful wildflowers, blossoming by the millions. The flowers seem to emerge out of nowhere, but in truth, the seeds of these blooms are always hidden on the desert floor, just waiting for the right amount of sunlight and rainfall before sprouting. The seeds are protected by a thick, waxy coating that guards them against the extreme heat. But when the desert gets enough rain to wash away the coating (which isn’t often), the seeds sprout and the flowers bloom, temporarily transforming the barren landscape.

8. The Flower That Haunts

The Gravel Ghost wildflower lives its life with the utmost discretion. It starts off as a patch of grayish leaves that blends in with the surrounding landscape. Then it sprouts a wiry stalk about 3 ft. high, which is also camouflaged against the barren scenery. But when the bulb atop the stalk blooms, it produces a vibrant white flower that insects flock to pollinate. Still, the stalk is so difficult to see that it creates the eerie appearance of a floating flower—hovering, ghost-like, above the desert floor.

9. Winning, by a Hare

The black-tailed jackrabbit may get teased for its oversize ears, but those trademark appendages help it beat the heat in Death Valley. The rabbit’s 7-inch-long ears contain a wealth of blood vessels that dissipate heat and help the animal regulate its body temperature. But the jackrabbit’s voracious appetite also plays into its success against the harsh climate. Like many desert creatures, the jackrabbit gets its water from the plants it eats. The clever hare switches its grazing seasonally, waiting until the hot summer months to consume the more water-filled cacti and grasses, often eating several times its body weight every day just to remain hydrated.

10. The Lizard That Was Born to Run

Like a water bug racing across a pond, the fringe-toed lizard glides with gravity-defying grace over the loose sand of the desert. Specially shaped scales on its toes allow the small reptile to scamper across the dunes and outrun most predators. But speed isn’t the lizard’s only superpower; the lightning-fast reptile can also vanish in an instant by diving headfirst beneath the surface of the sand. Thanks to special scales that fold over its eyes, ears, and nostrils, the fringe-toed lizard can keep sand out of its delicate parts while steering clear of predators underground.

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August 20, 2012 - 11:31am
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