Sonoran Desert animals of California

South of Joshua Tree National Park, the Sonoran Desert is home to many different animals

Sonoran Desert Tortoise

Most of the United States’ portion of the Sonoran Desert is in Arizona, but its westernmost tip ends in California, just south of the Mojave Desert and close to Joshua Tree National Park. Within the Sonoran Desert in California lies the incredible Chuckwalla Bench, a barren-looking area deceptively teeming with cool critters.

The array of wildlife here is unique — and under the Trump administration, the area was threatened by development, mining claims and irresponsible recreation. As these critters’ territory shrinks, they not only have to survive predators, they also need to avoid getting hit by speeding ATVs.

Chuckwalla lizard

The chuckwalla lizard shares its name with the region. When threatened by a predator, this lizard wedges itself into cracks and inhales, so that pursuers cannot extract it. They generally eat plants, although some have eaten mealworms in captivity. The chuckwalla’s desert diet contains a lot of salt, and after feasting, the chuckwalla removes the extra salt by sneezing it out.

Desert tortoise

The Chuckwalla Bench boasts one of the highest densities of desert tortoises in the California desert. This threatened keystone species can live for up to 80 years. Much like humans, desert tortoises take about 20 years to reach sexual maturity. Unlike humans, their mating dance involves the male biting a female and following her until, if interested, she lets him mount. Females can retain viable sperm for years and produce offspring whose sex is determined by the temperature rather than chromosomes. Warmer temperatures result in female offspring. The desert tortoise is the state reptile of California, but despite this, it is considered “threatened” under both the California and Federal Endangered Species Lists.

Mule deer

The Chuckwalla Bench is also home to the mule deer. The burro deer communicate via pheromones. Glands in its hindfeet secrete alarm signals and chemicals showing which pack it belongs to. Its large ears stick out like a donkey’s. In spring, burro deer grow out their antlers and shed their dark winter coats and replace them with a redder color.


Like to nap? So does the poorwill (kind of). In the Chuckwalla Mountains, biologist Edmund Jaeger was the first person to document torpor, the equivalent of napping or short-term hibernation, in a bird –specifically in the nocturnal, common poorwill.

Sonoran pronghorn

The range of the critically endangered Sonoran pronghorn once extended into California, including in the Chuckwalla Bench. Today, its population is limited to Arizona and parts of northern Mexico. As of 2016, experts estimate that less than 150 remain in the wild. Though low, this number represents an improvement following conservation efforts. The fastest land animal in North America, the pronghorn could be reintroduced back to the Chuckwalla Bench to lower its chances of extinction.

Other species

Many other animal species including the desert rosy boa and burrowing owl live in the Chuckwalla Bench and surrounding areas. Human development of this wild area could hurt their populations as well. Animals do not stay in human-designated geographical boundaries. We must acknowledge that and preserve what we can of their ranges.

For the sake of the wildlife that live there now and in the future, we must protect the Chuckwalla Bench from development and recreational activities that can cause them harm. We urge decision-makers to act soon to protect this wild place.


Laura Deehan

State Director, Environment California Research & Policy Center

Laura directs Environment California’s work to tackle global warming, protect the ocean, and stand up for clean air, clean water and open spaces. Laura served on the Environment California board for two years before stepping into the state director role. Most recently, she directed the public health program for CALPIRG, another organization in The Public Interest Network, where she led campaigns to get lead out of school drinking water and toxic chemicals out of cosmetics. Prior to that, Laura ran Environment California citizen outreach offices across the state and, as the Environment California field director, she led campaigns to get California to go solar, ban single use plastic grocery bags, and go 100 percent renewable. Laura lives with her family in Richmond, California, where she enjoys hiking, yoga and baking.

Gretchen Vengerova

Environment California Intern