Wupatki National Monument – Plants and animals

By Ron Goulet

Wupatki National Monument lies in a corner of the Great Basin desert, often called the Navajoan desert because of the presence of the Navajo Nation in this area. The desert climate of the monument, situated in the rain shadow of the San Francisco Peaks, constantly challenges and sharpens the survival skills of the animals living here.

Common wildlife includes coyotes, pronghorn, mule deer, jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, antelope ground squirrels, and numerous reptiles and birds. But it’s a big landscape, and these animals are highly adapted to their surroundings. It takes patience, keen powers of observation, and a little luck to catch a glimpse of most of them. 

Birds

Birds must have had symbolic and religious significance for former occupants of the area. Bird bones recovered from excavations include those of thick-billed parrots and scarlet macaws, traded north from the tropics of Mexico. At Wupatki Pueblo, at least eleven articulated parrot and macaw burials were found. Birds were also the subject of rock art and ceramic designs. Birds and feathers are important in Pueblo ceremonies today.

Bird populations at Wupatki and nearby Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments change with the season. In the summer you may see the western bluebird and mountain bluebird at higher elevations at Sunset Crater Volcano, while Wupatki is frequented by the western kingbird and black-throated sparrow. Fall is full of surprises as birds migrate from higher elevations to lower ones. The raven is often heard with its distinctive “caw,” its dark feathered body playfully soaring in the sky. The drumming of the red- shafted flicker is often heard. This jay-sized woodpecker uses its strong bill to search out wood-boring insects. Look for the dark silhouette of a golden eagle against the sky, and listen for the musical descending notes of the canyon wren.

Mammals

The most common mammals here are the rodents. Their small size, ground dwelling habits, and resulting lack of mobility make them especially susceptible to the extremes of temperature and lack of standing water characteristic of deserts. Consequently, they have evolved a very efficient life style. While they will not shun water if available, most desert rodents do not need a source of drinking water. They rely instead on moisture in their food for their metabolic needs. They avoid the searing dry heat of the day, spending it in the shade of underground burrows. The humidity of their burrows has been measured at several times that of the atmosphere, while underground temperatures can be as much as 30 degrees cooler than ambient temperature.

Most small mammals sleep or hibernate through the winter, waking only occasionally to feed on stored caches of food.

An observant and patient visitor can catch glimpses of some of the larger, diurnal (active in the daytime) mammals. The black-tailed jackrabbit can often be seen bounding away on this zigzag course. The jackrabbit is not really a rabbit, but a hare. Jackrabbits are born with hair, and with eyes open, whereas “bunnies” are blind and hairless at birth, to cite one of the differences.

In the early morning, you might see a herd of pronghorn antelope in the grassy areas of the monument. The pronghorn, recognized by a brilliant white rump patch, is unique among mammals in that it has a horn, not an antler, but it sheds its horn every year. Most horned mammals, like cows, only get one set per lifetime.

Around the visitor center, you might see a whitetail antelope squirrel. If he spots you eyeing him, he will freeze and wiggle his white tail at you. He carries his tail over his back; presumably, this quivering white patch serves to break up the animal’s outline, so that a predator, such as a soaring hawk, cannot recognize it as the body of a squirrel.

Desert mammals are generally paler in color than their relatives of milder climates and are usually very secretive in their habits. This is due to the sparsity of cover in the desert, and due to their habit of conserving energy in the heat of the day. But with careful observation, you may be rewarded with a glimpse of these creatures, and can marvel at their ability to survive in this beautiful but harsh land.

Mammal Checklist

Mule deer (0docoileus hemionus)
Pronghorn (Antliocapra americana)
Longtail weasel (Mustela frenata)
Striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
Spotted skunk (SpilogaIe gracilis)
Badger (Taxidea taxis)
Grey fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus)
Coyote (Canis latrans)
Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
Cougar (Felis concolor)
Blacktail jackrabbit (Lepus californicus)
Desert cottontail (Sylvilagus auduboni)
Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)
Rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus)
Whitetail antelope ground squirrel (Ammospermiphilus leucurus)
Spotted ground squirrel (Spermophilus spilosoma)
Whitetail prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni)
Pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae)
Pocket mouse (Perognathus spp.)
(flavus, apache, amplus, intermedius)
Kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ordi)
Grasshopper mouse (Onychomys leucogaster)
Harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys megalotus)
Deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus)
Canyon mouse (P. crinnitus)
Brush mouse (P. boy lei)
Mexican woodrat (Neotoma Mexicana)
Whitethroat woodrat (N. albigula)
Desert woodrat (N.stephensi)
Myotis (Myotis spp.)
Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus spp.)
Freetail bats (Tadarida spp.)
Shrew (Sorex roerriami)
Desert shrew (Notiosorex crawfordi)

Reptiles

During the Mesozoic Age, 65 to 225 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the Wupatki area. These ancestors of our modern reptiles are now extinct, but we know of their existence from their fossilized footprints and bones. Lizards, snakes, turtles, tortoises, crocodiles, and alligators are the major types of reptiles still living today. The name “reptile” comes from the Latin word reptum, which means “to creep.” Reptiles are cold- blooded; they do not have an internal means for controlling their body temperature. To avoid overheating in the midday sun, they have to find protection in the shade of plants, in rock crevices, or in burrows. About twenty species of lizards and snakes live in Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments. Only the rattlesnakes are dangerous, but some of the lizards have a painful bite.  

Lizards
The most common lizard of the monuments is the Side- blotched Lizard. This small dark green or grayish lizard has dark blue or black spots on each side behind the front legs. The male has a blue speckled band down its back. The Side-blotched Lizard eats Insects, ticks, and scorpions.

The large bright green lizard often seen around the ruins and on rocks, particularly near Lomaki Pueblo, is the Collared Lizard. The major distinguishing feature is the double black collar around its neck. Sometimes the Collared Lizard can be seen running on its two long hind legs. Medium-sized lizards, snakes, flowers, leaves, and insects are all a part of the Collared Lizard’s diet.

The Horned Lizard, or “Horny Toad,” is common but is not often seen. It has a round, flat body which blends well with its surroundings. Its diet consists exclusively of ants. The species in our area bears live young.

Whiptails are fast-moving lizards with very long tails. Most are a mottled black or brown color, sometimes with long yellow stripes, and they move with a jerky motion when disturbed. The Western Whiptail is our most common species. Another species, the Plateau Whiptail, has no males. It lays unfertilized eggs which invariably hatch into females.

The Desert Spiny Lizard is an insect eater. This lizard has a stout spiny body with a black wedge on each shoulder. It has a tendency to bob up and down when its territory is disturbed. A striking subspecies is the Orange-headed Desert Spiny Lizard; its head is very similar in color the local sandstone.

Snakes
Gopher Snakes are often seen in Wupatki Pueblo. This rodent-eating snake is yellow with large black or brown blotches. When threatened, it will mimic the behavior of a rattlesnake, hissing, coiling, and vibrating its tail. Gopher Snakes are not venomous. They kill their prey by constriction and eat it whole.

The Common Kingsnake is easily identified by its distinct black and yellowish bands. A large non- poisonous snake, it feeds on lizards, frogs, small mammals, birds, and other snakes, including rattlesnakes.

Rattlesnakes are the only dangerous snakes found in the area. Two local varieties are the Arizona Black Rattlesnake and the Hopi Rattlesnake, a small pinkish snake used in a dance ceremony. Rattlesnakes have a temperature-sensitive pit on each side of the face which helps them to locate their prey. Rattlesnakes bear live young. Please view all the lizards and snakes that make their homes here from a distance. As at all National Parks, the animals and plants at Wupatki are protected by federal law.

Reptile Checklist (not definitive)

Snakes

  • Glossy Snake
  • Night Snake
  • Common King Snake
  • Arizona Mountain King Snake
  • Sonoran Whipsnake
  • Striped Whipsnake
  • Sonoran Gopher Snake
  • Western Patch-nosed Snake
  • Western Rattlesnake
  • Hopi Rattlesnake
  • Arizona Black Rattlesnake

Lizards

  • Western Collared Lizard
  • Leopard Lizard
  • Lesser Earless Lizard
  • Short-horned Lizard
  • Desert Spiny Lizard
  • Orange-headed Desert Spiny Lizard
  • Eastern Fence Lizard
  • Side-blotched Lizard
  • Tree Lizard
  • Western Whiptail
  • Plateau Whiptail
  • Little Striped Whiptail

Plants

The arid lands of Wupatki National Monument support a large number of plants which are well-adapted to a desert environment. The gray-green foliage which characterizes much of the landscape absorbs less heat than the dark green leaves found in wetter and cooler areas. Many of the leaves are small to reduce water loss; others have a thick waxy coating. Succulent plants store water in their leaves or in their stems. Desert plants have either extensive shallow root systems that quickly absorb the occasional rainfall or very deep roots that tap water sources far below the soil surface.

Watch for the appearance of the yucca at Wupatki. It consists of a cluster of long, pointed leaves, developing a tall stalk in the spring which is covered first with large white blossoms and later, seed pods. Mormon tea looks like a cluster of leafless green twigs, but there are actually tiny leaves at the joints of the stems. Sagebrush, identified by scent and pale-green, slightly hairy small leaves, grows in clumps throughout the area.

The warm spring weather and summer rains bring many otherwise nondescript plants into bloom. Many will flower once in the spring and again only if it rains. This is only a partial description of some of the more familiar and frequently seen plants of Wupatki National Monument, but we encourage you to learn more about the plant life of the area. Remember, when admiring the plants in the park, please leave the blossoms, seed pods, and fruit for others to see and also to produce another generation. 

Photography Tips

 The arid climate conditions here and intense sunlight makes capturing landscape moods and pueblo ruins difficult during mid-day sun.  The bright sun washes out the colors.  The best images are captured in the early morning or late evening, sunrise and sunset.  The colors of the rocks and the scenic vistas are more intensely red and yellow at these times when the sun is low.