As the Imperial Valley transitions from spring to summer and temperatures begin to heat up, the Yuha Desert comes alive anew. While people seek relief from the rising temperatures running into air conditioned houses and swimming pools, animals such as snakes and lizards emerge from their winter slumber to soak up the sun and find food.

What is a desert?

While the term desert may conjure up images of rolling, sandy hills and the glaring sun, it might surprise you to learn that deserts exist in a variety of ecosystems. Deserts can be found on every continent and span extreme environments from the freezing cold to the oppressive heat. The “desert dunes” so often depicted in movies and film only comprise roughly 10% of the world’s deserts, while the largest desert in the world is actually the coldest, located in Antarctica. Imperial County, however, is home to the Imperial Sand Dunes – a favorite off-road recreation destination for residents and winter visitors to enjoy and explore, formed by windswept sands of Ancient Lake Cahuilla.

Deserts are not defined by their temperature, but rather by the amount of rain they receive each year. Additionally, the annual evaporation of water in deserts typically exceeds the annual rainfall. All deserts around the world share two commonalities – that they are “arid,” or dry, and only receive a maximum of 10 inches of rainfall per year. They are generally divided into five types: subtropical, coastal, rain shadow, interior, and polar.

The Yuha Desert, which is home to the Imperial Valley and a subset of the larger Sonoran Desert, is considered a subtropical desert. The Yuha Desert typically only averages 3 inches of rainfall per year and is considered one of the hottest and driest locations in North America, second only to Death Valley which is categorized as a rain shadow desert. Despite these extreme environments, roughly one billion people call the desert their home, including residents right here in the Imperial Valley.

Celebration and Conservation

The Yuha Desert is home to a variety of plants and animals, celebrating one of the most diverse desert environments. One of the most unique animals in the Yuha Desert is the Phrynosoma mcallii or the flat-tail horned lizard, only found in southwestern Arizona, southeastern California, and portions of Sonora and Baja California, Mexico.

Unlike some ectotherms, an animal that requires external sources to regulate body temperatures, flat-tail horned lizards are active year-round depending on the weather conditions, but they are typically the most active during the spring, summer, and fall. They use the sandy environments of the Yuha Desert to their advantage, burrowing under the surface to seek relief from extreme temperatures and they can most often be found next to ant nests awaiting their next meal, as ants are their primary source of food. Much like most creatures of the desert, they too have predators to watch-out for including falcons and large mammals such as foxes and coyotes, even birds such as burrowing owls and roadrunners, and snakes.

Flat-tailed horned lizard populations, however, are at risk due to habitat loss from human development such as agricultural, urban development, and recreational activities. As a result the Yuha Desert has been designated as an Area of Critical Concern due to the loss of the flat-tail horned lizard’s habitat and is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management to ensure the safety of the species. Their conservation has been mitigated in several different ways, including reducing the amount of off-road traffic with signage and designated trail systems for vehicles.

Learn, Explore, Do it Some More

The Yuha Desert is a fascinating place that should be explored and celebrated, but it is always a good reminder to be aware that we share the desert with a variety of animals who deserve our consideration. These animals, such as the flat-tail horned lizard, continue to prove their resiliency and adaptation of life in even the harsh desert environment.

To learn more about desert animals and plants come out and visit the Imperial Valley Desert Museum! We have beautiful walking trails with educational panels that highlight the variety of animals that call the Yuha Desert their home. With temperatures on the rise we hope you come beat the heat with us as we begin our summer programming.

The Imperial Valley Desert Museum is located in Ocotillo, California. It is open Wednesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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