Desert Critters Trail
The Desert Critters Trail is located at Washington Park in Alamogordo, NM, and is a scavenger-hunt-style trail, offering family fun and encouraging physical activity. Otero HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living) developed this idea with the intention of getting people to walk more often, learn about local nature, and enjoy time together outdoors. Washington Park provides ADA- accessible sidewalks throughout.
Desert Critters Trail highlights 18 indigenous species of animals, from most trophic levels of the food chain. Each animal has its own dedicated stone monument hidden somewhere in the park! Your mission is to find each one. More in-depth information about each animal can be found below! Look for the trailhead signs at three different parking access points to the park, for your convenience.
This project is a collaboration between the City of Alamogordo, Otero Soil and Water Conservation District, Otero County Community Health Council - HEAL Action Team, US Forest Service - Lincoln National Forest, NM Department of Health, the Grindstone Group, and Eco-Servants. This project is funded by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation.
Chihuahuan Raven: a desert species of Raven unique to the deserts of the Southwest.
Size: 18-20 inches tall. Smaller than the Common Raven, about the size of American Crow.
Appearance: All black plumage, in some light, may appear to have a purple/bluish shine.
Diet: Omnivorous, eats grains, seeds, insects, small reptiles, carrion, cactus fruit, and eggs.
Role in the ecosystem: By eating carrion they are important in nutrient cycling, As predators of small animals like insects and lizards they promote the evolution of their prey.
Desert Adaptation: The smaller Chihuahuan Raven is better suited for the desert than its larger relative the Common Raven. Small size is helpful for animals living in deserts to dissipate heat.
Greater Roadrunner: The state bird of New Mexico, these ground-dwelling birds are excellent hunters of the desert.
Size: 9-12 inches tall with 17-24-inch wingspan.
Appearance: The upper body is brown with black streaks the belly is white. Roadrunners have a long dark tail, a long bill, and a crest of feathers that stick up on their head. Behind the eye is a bald patch with an orange and blue coloration. Adult males’ patch has white in between the blue and orange.
Diet: Roadrunners are excellent hunters and prey on insects, spiders, scorpions, mice, snakes, and small birds. They kill their prey by running them down, catching them in their bill, and slamming them to the ground.
Role in Ecosystem: Similarly, to the role of all predators, roadrunners control the numbers of their prey, preventing overpopulation.
Desert Adaptation: Roadrunners use the open terrain of the desert to run down their prey. They also are excellent at thermoregulation (maintaining an ideal body temperature). They can be seen panting in the heat to cool down, and in the winter, they can be seen sunbathing to warm up.
Southwestern Red-tailed Hawk: The numerous subspecies of the red-tailed hawk are found across North America however these subspecies dwell in the deserts of the Southwest.
Size: 2-4 pounds 4-5-foot wingspan Females are significantly larger than males.
Appearance: Typical coloration is brown wings and back with light or speckled chest and legs and a dark reddish tail for which it received its name. Red-tailed hawks plumage can vary greatly in color.
Diet: Carnivorous, primarily eating rodents like mice, rats, rabbits but also consuming lizards insects, fish, and frogs.
Role in the Ecosystem: Red-Tailed Hawks play a predator role in the Ecosystem.
Desert Adaptation: Given their keen eyesight Red-tailed hawks Prefer to hunt in open areas the open landscapes of the desert southwest provide excellent hunting grounds for these birds.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake: This Venomous snake is an infamous icon of the Desert Southwest.
Size: Adult Diamondbacks commonly grow to around 4 feet long, but they can grow larger under certain conditions.
Appearance: The Diamondback’s scale pattern consists of rectangular or hexagonal shapes along the top of the snake from the head to tail contributing to its name. On the tail, there are black and white alternating bands leading to the rattle that tips the tail.
Colors can vary but are generally a similar color to their surroundings to camouflage themselves.
Diet: Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes feed almost entirely on small mammals. Species include Kangaroo rats, pocket gophers, mice, prairie dogs, rabbits.
Role in Ecosystem: Rattlesnakes prevent overpopulation and disease in their prey by controlling their numbers.
Desert Adaptation: Reptiles are cold-blooded and use the hot desert to their advantage. They often bask in the sun to maintain an ideal body temperature.
Size: 3-5 inches. Females are slightly larger than males.
Appearance: Most commonly Desert tarantulas are dark brown to black except for the carapace, or front section of the body, which is lighter and refer to them as blonde tarantulas. However different colorations are possible.
Diet: Desert tarantulas don’t catch their prey in webs like most spiders, instead they hunt their prey on foot and subdue them with a venomous bite. They prey primarily on insects such as crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas. Tarantulas are also known to catch and eat larger prey like mice, lizards, and even bats!
Role in Ecosystem: Tarantulas playa predatory role in the ecosystem.
Desert Adaptation: Desert Tarantulas dig burrows that they forty with silk to keep moisture in and the heat out. These burrows protect them from the elements as well as from predators.
Coyote: Today Coyotes are found nearly everywhere in North America. However, in the 1700s Coyotes existed just in the deserts and prairies of central North America. Their Expansion is attributed to their ability to thrive in human-altered environments.
Size: Males are slightly larger than females and the size of individuals varies greatly. Males weigh anywhere from 18-44 pounds, Females weigh 15-40 pounds.
Appearance: Fur color also varies greatly given the expansive geographic range of coyotes. Common colors are Reddish-brown, white, tan, black, and grey.
Diet: Coyotes are primarily carnivorous (meat-eating) and eat a variety of food. When hunting in packs they will hunt deer, elk, pronghorn. They commonly hunt rabbits, hares, ground birds, squirrels, chipmunks, pocket gophers and kangaroo rats, lizards, insects, and even rattlesnakes. Common non-animal foods eaten by coyotes are wild fruits, grass, and domestic crops like grain and soybeans.
Role in Ecosystem: Coyotes play a predator role in the ecosystems where they are present. They control the numbers of their prey and thus prevent disease and overpopulation.
Desert Adaptation: Coyotes are well adapted to live in deserts. By eating a variety of foods they can survive where certain species of prey may not exist. Coyotes living in deserts are typically lighter in color helping to absorb less heat from the sun. Similar to dogs coyotes pant instead of sweating to dissipate heat and cool themselves down.
Black-tailed Jackrabbit: A species of hare native to the western US and Mexico.
Size: Black-tailed jackrabbits are large weighing 3-6 pounds and around 2 feet long.
Appearance: easily distinguishable from rabbits, black-tailed jackrabbits have very long black-tipped ears, long legs, and a black-tipped tail.
Diet: Black-tailed Jackrabbits eat a variety of grasses and shrubs, they are commonly found in desert shrubland for this reason.
Role in Ecosystem: they serve as a valuable prey species for many other predators like hawks, eagles, snakes, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, and mountain lions.
Desert Adaptation: Black-tailed Jackrabbits get most of the water they need from the plants that they eat. They prefer to eat new green growth that has higher amounts of water for this reason. Their large ears also help to dissipate body heat.
Mule deer: Mule deer are native to the western half of North America. In New Mexico, we have two subspecies The Rocky Mountain Mule Deer and the Desert Mule deer
Size: Mule deer are larger than their Eastern relatives the White-tailed deer with mature males (bucks) weighing 121-300 pounds and females (does) weighing 95-200 pounds.
Appearance: Mule Deer get their name from their large ears compared to that of other deer species. They have a light grey coat with a white rump patch and a tail that is tipped with black fur and more rope-like than that of a white-tailed deer. Mule deer also have a dark strip of fur across their brow more noticeable in males.
Diet: Mule deer are primarily browsers which means they eat a variety of plant matter like leaves, twigs, bark, and shrubs. But they will also graze upon grasses and forbs.
Role in Ecosystem: Through browsing and grazing, mule deer prevent overgrowth of the plants they consume. They also provide a food source for predators such as coyotes, mountain lions, and bears.
Desert Adaptation: Mule deer are lighter in color than White-tailed Deer this helps keep cool in the heat. Their large ears help to dissipate heat and to hear predators coming in the wide-open landscapes of the Desert. Mule deer are also much more migratory than other species of deer, this helps them find water seasonally and escape harsh winters. Mule deer will be active mostly in the mornings and evenings when it is cooler, this a behavioral adaptation to the desert.
North American Cougar (Mountain Lion): These expert predators used to span across the continental US Northern Mexico and southern Canada. They were extirpated from the eastern portion of their range due to hunting and habitat loss. Now Cougars can be found in the Western US and Canada as well as Northern Mexico. However, in recent years cougar sightings have been more common in the eastern US.
Size: Males weigh 80-150 pounds, females are slightly smaller weighing 50-100 pounds.
Appearance: Grayish Tan coat with lighter fur on their underside, their long tail has a black tip. Cougars have a similar body structure to a house cat however they are obviously much larger.
Diet: Cougars are ambush predators typically hunting large animals like Deer and Elk, However, they will also consume small mammals like rodents, and even insects.
Role in Ecosystem: The North American Cougar plays a predatory role in the ecosystem.
Desert Adaptation: Cougars will use the rocky cliffs of the deserts to den as well as to ambush prey. They will also hunt prey that may congregate near water. Cougars are active at night as well as during the early morning, and late evening, are less active during the heat of the day.
Yucca Moth: These important are to thank for our beautiful State flower the Yucca flower. Each species of Yucca plant is a corresponding moth that acts as the sole pollinator for that type of yucca.
Size: The Size of yucca Moth depends on the size of the flower that they pollinate and rely on to reproduce.
Appearance: Yucca moths are usually small and white however they will match the color of the yucca flower that they pollinate.
Diet: The Larva feed on the seeds of a pollinated yucca flower. Adult yucca moths are so short-lived they do not need to eat.
Role in Ecosystem: Yucca Moths are important pollinators as well as a food source for birds and other animals
Desert Adaptation: Having evolved with the yucca plant these moths can only live wherever yuccas can.
Horned Lizard: Often called Horny Toads due to their toad-like bodies these lizards are a fascinating desert critter.
Size: Average adult Horned lizards are 2.7 inches in length, but females can grow to be almost 5 inches and males can grow to be around 4 inches.
Appearance: These small stout lizards are tan, with darker brown streaks to blend in with the desert ground. The large horns on their heads are extensions of their skull and are made of bone. The other spikes on its back and tail are modified scales. These features help protect the lizards from predators.
Diet: Most of the Horned lizard’s diet is made up of harvester ants but they also eat beetles, grasshoppers, and other insects.
Role in Ecosystem: Horned Lizards are both predators and prey in the ecosystem. They prey upon insects and are preyed upon by hawks, eagles, roadrunners, snakes, and even coyotes.
Desert Adaptation: Like all reptiles, Horned Lizards are cold-blooded and will bask in the desert sun to increase their body heat.
Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat: This adorable rodent is a very important member of the desert community. They are found only in the desert Southwest of North America.
Size: Kangaroo Rats are relatively small-bodied generally around 4-5 inches long however their tails are longer than their bodies.
Appearance: Kangaroo rats are sandy brown on their backs with a lighter underbelly. They get their name from their large and powerful rear legs and feet. They use their rear legs to hop at high speeds and use their long tail to help balance.
Diet: Kangaroo Rats are Granivorous (grain-eating) and exclusively eat seeds from plants. They use fur-lined cheek pouches to gather seeds that they store in their burrows where they spend most of their time.
Role in Ecosystem: They are prey to almost every desert predator like snakes, hawks, owls, coyotes, and even cougars. They also play a role in seed dispersal by gathering and moving seeds.
Desert Adaptation: Kangaroo Rats are nocturnal to avoid heat & predators. They will also seal the entrance to their burrow to keep them cool.
Javelina: Also called Musk hog or skunk pig due to their strong scent glands, the proper name for this unique desert critter is the Collared Peccary. Though they resemble wild hogs in some ways javelina along with other Peccaries are distinctly different animals and are only distantly related to pigs. They can be found roaming the desert grasslands, shrublands, and Oak scrublands of Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas they range far south into Mexico, Central, and South America.
Size: Javelina are smaller than domestic or wild pigs and adults stand around 2 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh between 35-50 pounds.
Appearance: Javelina has a dark wiry coat with a distinct collar of light fur behind their head giving their name. They have a similar head and body shape to pigs but have more pointed ears and less visible tails and tusks (canine teeth).
Diet: Javelina are omnivores and will eat a variety of foods depending on availability. Their favorite foods are seeds, roots, and fruit from cacti, especially Prickly Pear Cactus fruit. They will also scavenge for insects, small animals like lizards, rodents, and birds.
Role in Ecosystem: Javelina provides a source of prey for animals like cougars, bobcats, and coyotes. Their feeding also provides a seed dispersal role.
Desert Adaptation: Javelina will escape the heat by resting in the shade of mesquite and oak trees.
Western Banded Gecko: This small terrestrial lizard native to numerous different desert ecosystems of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.
Size: Adult geckos are between 4-6 inches long.
Appearance: The sand-colored body and distinct dark banding and spots provide geckos excellent camouflage from predators.
Diet: Banded geckos are nocturnal predators, and hunt at night for a variety of prey including insects, spiders, and even juvenile scorpions.
Role in Ecosystem: Western banded geckos serve both a predator and a prey role in the ecosystems they live in. they control the populations of their prey and provide food for animals they are prey upon like snakes, large spiders like tarantulas and coyotes, and foxes.
Desert Adaptations: All species of gecko are found in warm climates. Being reptiles, they are cold-blooded and rely on heat from their environment to regulate internal temperature. Banded Geckos are more active on warm nights.
Desert Bighorn Sheep: This subspecies of bighorn sheep can be found in the arid rocky landscapes of the desert Southwest and Northern Mexico. The subspecies was previously at risk of endangerment but due to recent conservation efforts, population estimates of desert bighorn sheep have increased across their range, although some populations in California are still listed as endangered.
Size: Rams (males) weigh between 150-300 pounds and ewes (Females) are slightly smaller.
Appearance: Desert bighorn looks very similar to other bighorn sheep species. Both rams and ewes have horns that grow throughout their life but only rams develop large curled horns characteristic of bighorn sheep. Rams use their horns to fight with other rams and establish dominance and fight over females during breeding.
Diet: Desert bighorn commonly feed on grasses but will also browse on shrubs, forbs, and cacti. They have a multichambered stomach to help digest these tough foods.
Role in the Ecosystem: Bighorn sheep are preyed upon primarily by mountain lions, as grazers they also proved seed dispersal and nutrient cycling.
Desert Adaptation: Unlike other subspecies of Bighorn Sheep, Desert Bighorn can do for weeks or months without drinking as they can rely on moisture from the vegetation they consume.
Gray Fox: While the Gray Fox can be found throughout much of North America, they thrive in the desert ecosystems of the Southwestern United States.
Size: Gray Foxes are small weighing only 8-15 pounds.
Appearance: Gray foxes look similar to coyotes despite being much smaller. One identifying feature of gray foxes is a black stripe along the top of their long bushy-tail.
Diet: Gray foxes are omnivores and will eat rodents, birds, eggs, lizards, insects, seeds, and nuts.
Role in the Ecosystem: Gray Foxes control the populations of the species they prey upon, Gray foxes provide a food source for animals that prey upon them like mountain lions, eagles, hawks, bobcats, and coyotes.
Desert Adaptation: Grey Foxes will dig dens in the ground, these dens provide an escape from the heat of the desert.
White-Winged Dove: This species of Dove is native to the deserts of the Southwestern United States as well as Mexico, Central American, and the Caribbean islands. Often these birds can be heard by listening for their hoot like a call that mimics the rhythm of the phrase “who cooks for you.”
Size: White-winged doves are medium-sized birds around 11 inches from tail to beak, weighing around 5.5 ounces and having wingspans around 20 inches.
Appearance: brown/grey color with dark wingtips and white edging on wings giving them their name. They have a black patch of feathers under each eye as well as distinct blue eye-ring around their red eyes.
Diet: White-winged doves primarily eat grain and seeds, but they also eat pollen and nectar.
Role in the Ecosystem: White-winged doves play role in seed dispersal as well as a prey source to hawks, owls, foxes, bobcats, and coyotes.
Desert Adaptation: Some populations of white-winged doves are migratory and will fly far distances to find water.
Scorpion: While there are many species of scorpion in New Mexico The most common scorpion around Alamogordo is the Lesser Stripetail Scorpion also called the Coahuila Scorpion. They do sting but their venom is mildly similar to that of a bee sting.
Size: These scorpions are small with females being around 1.75 inches long and males are smaller around 1.5 inches.
Appearance: Lesser Stripetail Scorpions are small and are a tan to brownish color. Like all scorpions, they have six legs two pinchers at the front of their body, and the classic whiptail tipped with a stinger.
Diet: These Scorpions hunt and eat small spiders and insects.
Role in the Ecosystem: As predators, they control the populations of the insects and spiders they prey upon. As prey, they provide a food source to predators like owls, hawks, snakes, large centipedes, and even bats. Lizards like the banded gecko will eat young scorpions.
Desert Adaptation: Like many other desert critters, the Lesser Stripetail Scorpion burrows to avoid the heat.