Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park (National Park Service)

The wild, rugged beauty of Canyonlands covers a harsh environment that isn't overly welcoming to mammals. Yes, Canyonlands has living things—but it's mostly a landscape of rock.

However, bighorn sheep clamber with ease on the rough slopes and canyons throughout Canyonlands. Since they're so shy and live so remotely, usually only backcountry travelers and river runners see them.

Other animals in the park include the red-tailed hawk, coyote, mule deer, kangaroo rat, bats, wood rats (Needles is considered "wood rat heaven"), bats, white tailed antelope squirrel, mule deer, turkey vultures, golden eagles, peregrine falcon, and more.

Since Canyonlands is three parks, there can be a great contrast among each district's wildlife. Perhaps the biggest difference can be seen in the rodents, which total one-third of the Canyonlands mammals list. Out of 25 rodents, only the beaver, pinon mouse, and Colorado chipmunk are equally divided among the parks.

Life-Saving Edge for Desert Animals

A few drops of water, a patch of shade or an underground retreat are small things, but they just might provide the life-saving edge for desert animals. Most desert animal adaptations cope with temperature—and moisture stresses. Since animals are mobile, they can deal with their environment through behavioral adaptations, but some have physiological changes as well.

Use of a microclimate is one way desert animals adjust to the environment. Lizards and snakes, for example, retreat to shady areas or to underground burrows during the heat of the day, or, like the spade foot toad, may even become dormant during unfavorable seasons. A jackrabbit will rest during the day and seek food at night. It will lay in a slight hollow in the shade with its big ears lying flat along its back. The ears display a high reflectivity to light. When the rabbit becomes hot, blood vessels in the ears dilate, causing heat in its body to radiate back into the air. The jackrabbit is a good example of an animal with both behavioral and physiological adaptations. The kangaroo rat lives its entire life eating only dry plant food and never drinks water. Its body produces water by metabolizing the dry food it eats. Active only at night, the kangaroo rat spends the day sleeping in its cool burrow underground, plugging the opening with dirt, keeping the heat out and moisture in.

Some large animals are more dependent on water and rely on their mobility to reach water sources. Bighorn sheep and mule deer, for example, must have free water. Their powerful bodies provide the energy to transport them many miles to the river, a rain-filled pothole, or a spring. In addition, a considerable amount of water is derived from the plant food they eat, so bighorn and deer are able to go several days in between drinks.

Carnivores like the coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, and birds of prey rely heavily on the fluids found within the animals they eat to supplement the water they drink.

Fur and feathers can play a double role in some animals by shielding them from the sun during the day and insulating them from the cold at night. Animals with a short sleek pelage are still able to lose heat fairly easily after exertion by laying their hair down flat. Birds can droop their wings down away from their bodies allowing heat to escape from their thinly feathered undersides. Birds and large mammals commonly pant as a means to increase heat loss.

We consider the desert a harsh place, but perhaps only because we are not adapted to living in it. The plant and animal inhabitants of arid lands are quite at home. A kangaroo rat would find life nearly impossible in a moist grassy meadow, and blackbrush could not survive in a cool deciduous woodland. A wide range of plants and animals inhabit the canyon country; you just have to look carefully to see them.


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