Organ Pipes Cactus National Monument

Flora and Fauna
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Plant Life
The organ pipe is a large cactus found rarely in the United States, although common in Mexico. The monument encompasses the bulk of its U.S. population. Like its fellow cacti, and other desert inhabitants, the organ pipe is tuned to the rhythms of the sun and the infrequent rains. A glutton for heat and light, it grows on south-facing slopes where it can absorb the most sun. This location is critical during winter months, when severe frosts can kill the cactus. But when it blooms, in the heat of May, June, and July, the organ pipe waits until the sun goes down to open its tender lavender-white flowers. Other types of cactus bloom at night, too, but many also bloom during the day, exposing their flowers to the sun. Day or night, the summer display of many different cactus blooms is one of the desert's flashiest spectacles, as the brilliant flowers of yellow, red, white, and pink bring color to the landscape. It is a show upstaged only by the springtime explosions of gold poppies, blue lupines, pink owl clover, and other annuals after a wet winter.

Less conspicuous than the plants are the animals of the desert. Many them, including elf owls, kangaroo rats, most snakes, and jackrabbits, are creatures of the night. They hide in cactus holes, underground burrows or other cool and shaded spots during the day. Other animals, such as bighorn sheep, most birds, and most lizards prefer daylight to darkness. But these animals also may seek mid-day shade. They tend to restrict their activity to early morning and late afternoon during the heat of summer, when air temperatures can reach 118 degrees Fahrenheit and ground temperatures occasionally soar to a scorching 175 degrees. Coyotes and javenlinas are even more adaptable, active at any time of day or night that is not too hot.

To deal with the lack of water to drink, desert animals must have some way to conserve body moisture. The best example of an efficient desert water manager is the kangaroo rat. It ordinarily drinks no water and eats mostly dry food. It gets some moisture from even the driest seeds, and adds this to the water formed in the process of food metabolism. But the kangaroo rat's survival depends primarily on reducing water loss. Its urine is highly concentrated and its feces are almost completely dry. It even reclaims through its nose much of the water otherwise lost in breathing.

Human Visitors
Like other desert dwellers, human beings, too, have had to adapt to survive, or suffer the consequences. Prehistoric nomads relied on scarce springs and seeps in their travels. Later desert wanderers—Spanish explorers, missionaries, and others—sometimes entered this unforgiving environment unprepared. Many followed an almost waterless route called El Camino del Diablo—"the Devil's Highway"—as they headed west. Unmarked graves along the route are grim reminders that some did not finish their journey. In the early 1900s ranchers and miners expanded human occupation of the desert by finding and developing new water sources. Today, just as before, visitors learn quickly about thirst, heat, cactus, and rattlesnakes, and find ways to safely enjoy the desert on its own terms.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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