Most of the Big Bend area is a desert with less than 10 inches of rain annually! Only the hardiest of plants can grow in this dry climate. For protection and survival, many of the plants have spines, thorns, or poisonous leaves to keep animals from eating them. Animals have adapted to the hot, dry climate by seeking shade during the hottest parts of the day and coming out to eat and hunt only at dusk when it is relatively cool.
This region has an occasional spring called a cienega (see-en-eh-gah). A cienega creates an oasis of water and wildlife in this typically dry region.
The coyote is a nocturnal animal that howls at night. About the size of a small German shepherd dog, it is usually gray or buff in color, with yellow eyes, erect ears and a bushy, black-tipped tail. This intelligent animal has a keen sense of hearing, sight, and smell. Coyotes will eat almost anything, but they particularly like rabbits and rodents. They use abandoned dens or natural holes or “cavities” as their dens. They are very adaptable and have a strong survival instinct in any environment.
The mountain lion makes it home in the wide-open spaces of this sparsely populated area. Mountain lions are slender and tawny brown in color with a smallish head. The mountain lion is usually 3-4 feet in length with a tail almost as long as its body! Mountain lions live alone and eat meat, such as deer, wild hogs, rabbits, and rodents. They are found throughout the Big Bend Region. Mountain lions are also called cougars, pumas, and panthers.
Roadrunners are found in brushy desert areas. They can fly only for a few moments because their bodies are so large. Because of this, they prefer to stay on the ground and are known as very swift runners! The roadrunner is often seen racing ahead of cars traveling on a roadway and then suddenly darting into brush, hence their name. Their feathers are mostly brown with black streaks and white spots. The neck and chest is white with brown streaks and the belly is white. Brown feathers stick up on the top of its head. Mostly they eat insects and small animals, such as mice and gophers, but roadrunners are also fast enough to catch and eat rattlesnakes!
Tarantulas are hairy spiders and usually found in warm climates. Some tarantulas have lived 20 years. Although they look scary, a bite is rare and not harmful to humans. They are gray to dark brown in color and live under rocks or in burrows abandoned by other animals. Tarantulas are most active late in the day and evening when it is cooler, and mostly eat insects. Sometimes after mating, the female eats the male. An interesting fact is that tarantulas have eight eyes all grouped together! One pair of eyes is in the middle and three are on each side of its face!
Lechuguilla is a hardy desert plant. This shrub has yellow-green leaves with purplish to yellow flowers. Once it flowers, the plant dies. All of the plant’s nutrients stored over the years are used in the process of creating a tall stem with blooms at the top, which causes it to die after blooming. The roots of the plant are eaten by deer and javelina but are poisonous to cattle. It lives in the Chihuahuan Desert. Native peoples long ago made twine, baskets, and sandals from the fibers of these plants. The center or “heart” of the plant was roasted and eaten. The plant has adapted to the dry environment by storing water in its thick “succulent” (juicy) leaves.