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Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum: Why I Want To Be A Kangaroo Rat (Mostly)

Sweat poured down from my forehead. I tried to wipe the drops away but the inside of my baseball hat was already soaked through, and my hair was shellacked to my head. I looked at the water bottle in my hand, half-empty. The rays of the sun baked me like a potato. And, we had only walked for seven minutes at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

Flowering Cactus, Arizona Sonoran Desert
This was the Sonoran Desert, over 100,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau, and large enough to stretch across the Mexican states of Sonora, Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur, and parts of the U.S. states of California and Arizona.

Bird, Arizona Sonoran Desert
The area receives more rainfall than any other desert (up to twelve inches along Baja) during two rainy seasons. Winter storms come from the Pacific Ocean, while summer monsoons originate from the Gulf of Mexico. There are also two rivers – the Gila and Colorado – which add to the moisture. However, the summer temperatures often exceed 104ºF (40ºC), and have reached 118ºF (48ºC).

Prairie Dog, Arizona Sonoran Desert
During the hotter seasons, dust devils (or mini-dust tornadoes) pick up loose sand and form a cyclone, sweeping across the flat areas. This hot, dry environment creates deposits of caliche (whitish minerals which have partially dissolved). This layer of sediment often makes it difficult for any vegetation to grow.

Cardinal, Arizona Sonoran Desert
The flora and fauna have adapted unique traits in order to deal with this extreme climate.

  • The roots of the Mesquite tree can burrow up to 98 feet (30 meters) to seek out moisture. Mesquite makes up 80% of the coyote’s diet in the growing season.
  • The desert ironwood can only be found in the Sonoran desert. It grows up to 30 foot (9 meters) tall and can live for 1,500 years. It also sprouts a large pea pod, a food source for the area’s animals,
  • The saguaro cactus can hold up to 42 gallons (160 liters) of water in order to survive frequent droughts.
  • Spadefoot toads estivate (a form of hibernation) for eight to nine months of the year.
  • Roadrunners can reach speeds of up to 25 MPH (40 km/h), because running uses up less energy than flying.
  • The kangaroo rat can live its entire life without drinking a drop of water. These creatures receive all of their moisture from eating leaves and insects. Their nasal passages are designed to cool their breath so that it condenses into moisture, which is absorbed into their bodies. Consequently, its urine is released in the form of a paste. Charming!

Saguaro Cactus

Fifteen minutes into our walk I wished I had a nose like the kangaroo rat’s (although it can keep the paste urine). And, we were in the ‘easy’ section of the Sonoran Desert, or the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson.

Saguaro Cactus, Arizona Sonoran Desert
This is a ninety-eight acre zoo that has been sectioned off with walkways. There are inside exhibits and pit areas, but much of the museum consists of the land outside and its natural inhabitants. This does include rattlesnakes – so watch where you step, this is their turf.

In Cat Canyon, I watched a bobcat proudly parade around with a dead squirrel in its mouth, as pleased with itself as a dog with a new squeaky toy. Secretive by nature, bobcats can be hard to see in the wild, which is why it was a treat to find two at the museum. Cat Canyon is also home to one ocelot, a species listed as endangered (although there is a small, wild population in Texas). Other highlights include an aviary, cactus garden and a riparian corridor, complete with otters and beavers.

There are several water fountains but it’s best to take your own bottle. Also, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses are a must.

What’s your favorite Arizona attraction?

Lane & Juliet

The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.


Tony Ingraham

Nice piece on the Desert Museum. I try to get there whenever I’m in Tucson. It was started by a guy I think was named Bill Carr, who built a similar museum before the Desert Museum at Bear Mountain State Park in the Hudson Highlands sbout 50 miles north of NYC. Called the Bear Mountain Trailside Museum, it is built along the earliest section of the Appalachian Trail, and, like the Desert Museum, consists of an outdoor zoo plus indoor exhibits and dioramas interpreting the natural history of those mountains. Another museum, modeled on the Tucson museum, was built in Hermosillo, the capital of the State of Sonora.

The Duo

Wow. Thanks for passing on the info.

Mindy and Ligeia

hummm… favorite Arizona attraction? Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, being able to white water raft from Page to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Still lots more we’d want to see. :)
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Courtney Mroch

Another Tucson hotspot you might have gotten to was Sabino Canyon? I went to the UofA. But even before I went there, we’d visit my grandparents in Phx all the time. A fun daytrip we all used to like to do was head down to the Desert Museum! My grandma loved the hummingbirds. I’d love to visit here again and relive happy old memories (and maybe create some new ones) when we go “home” to AZ in April, but I fear we won’t have time to get down there. (We’ll be staying more in PHX and catching up with friends there before heading up to the Grand Canyon for my husband to run rim to rim. Crazy man!) Excellent piece. You have a crazy knack for writing about places I love. I especially appreciate your wonderful pics!
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The Duo

We haven’t explored Arizona enough and hope to get that way again in 2013. Thanks for the compliments!

Tony Ingraham

Yes, Sabino Canyon is definitely worth a visit. A friend of mine works as a volunteer ranger helping visitors. She loves the place. She also volunteers at Saguaro Nat’l Park, another great place in Tucson.

The Duo

Thank you!

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