Is There Life in Death Valley?
Life in Death Valley is harsh, but there is life.
Primarily part of the Mojave Desert in California and a bit of Nevada, the area is known as the hottest place on Earth, with a record high of 134 degrees. What could live in that?
A lot, apparently. Let’s find out what lives in Death Valley and how it not only survives, but thrives.
About Death Valley
Besides being the hottest place on earth, Death Valley is also the driest place in North America and the largest designated National Park Wilderness in the contiguous U.S. In addition, Badwater Basin in the salt flats is the lowest elevation in the country at 282 feet below sea level.
Fifteen miles away is the highest point in the national park, Telescope Peak, which rises to 11,049 feet above sea level.
So Death Valley isn’t just a barren desert salt flat as you’d imagine. It contains sand dunes and amazing geology, such as exposed fault lines and other formations. It also has mountains and riparian habitats, and even water.
Plant and animal species, some of which occur nowhere else in the world, have adapted to life in Death Valley because of this water.
Water in Death Valley is Life
Believe it or not, Death Valley has one of the country’s largest aquifer systems underneath it. This aquifer creates springs and seeps, causing small pools and marshes that support various wildlife.
The Devil’s Hole Pupfish is a rare species adapted to the high salinity and hot water. In fact, each separate body of water in Death Valley has created a different species of pupfish that can be found nowhere else in the park or the world.
Rainfall on the valley’s salt pan floor is typically around 1.9 inches per year. On the other hand, the higher mountains can receive upwards of 15 inches. As we all know, if there is water, there is life, which holds true in Death Valley.
Death Valley Plant Life
Death Valley has over 1,000 named plant species. The salt pan floor has no flora; however, the rest of the valley has cactus, succulents, and creosote bush. Climbing higher, you’ll see numerous wildflowers, mesquite, and Joshua trees, then pines in the highest elevations.
Wildflowers typically bloom in pockets every spring. You’ll find cholla and barrel and pincushion cactus flowering in the valley. Then the more common flowers such as marigolds, primrose, and mariposa lily bloom as their areas warm up. Flowers appear around mid-February, and the last of them disappear after mid-July, depending on the elevation.
Death Valley hasn’t avoided the spread of non-native, invasive plant life. In fact, oleander, one of the most toxic landscaping plants, has made its way to the desert. The shrub is lethal to pets and people if eaten and can land you in the hospital simply by breathing smoke from its branches.
Date and fan palms and Tamarisk trees have all been brought to nearby areas for landscaping. These all spread prolifically through the birds and mammals that eat their seeds. But these trees use the groundwater needed by local plants and can take over areas, killing off the native flora. This, in turn, prevents the animals that need the native plants for food and shelter from thriving.
On the bright side, about once in ten years, the desert shows off in a ‘superbloom’ where nearly all the wildflowers bloom at once. This spectacular floral show largely depends on the preceding fall and winter weather, especially rainfall.
Know Before You Go: If you’re planning a visit to Death Valley specifically for wildflowers, check the park’s Wildflower Seasons page for specific timing.
Death Valley Insect Life
With water and plants, insects thrive. Bug life from flies to dragonflies abounds in Death Valley just as anywhere else. Even butterflies such as the square-spotted blue, sagebrush checkerspot, and Indra swallowtail call this place home.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Death Valley National Park reptile and amphibian life include nearly 20 snake species, including rattlesnakes and boas. In addition, 18 different lizard species such as gecko, chuckwalla, and horned lizards thrive in the Mojave.
Now that we know there’s water in the desert, it’s not too surprising to learn that a few types of frogs, toads, and salamanders also live a good life here.
Adaptation is key for some animals.
The desert tortoise, for example, hangs out in its burrow in something like a light hibernation on hot days. It also performs a true hibernation during the more frigid winter weather. Because of this, the tortoise may only be out of its home for three months each year, depending on the weather.
Birdlife thrives in Death Valley. With the water, seeds, and bugs, the birds have abundant food sources. In fact, the spring and fall migrations see hundreds of bird species flowing through the Mojave Desert.
Most of the year, you’ll see various songbirds such as wrens, blackbirds, and sparrows. The iconic roadrunners zoom across the desert landscape, easily adapted to the desert with a 104-degree body temperature. Raptors enjoy soaring on the currents, hunting the smaller mammals. In contrast, ducks and other wading birds hang out near the various water holes.
Spring migration in Death Valley is typically early March to early May, and Fall migration from August through October, with its peak in September. Winter is not the best time to see birds as it’s too cold for those adapted to desert life, so most stick close to their nests.
If you want to visit during the migrations, several excellent places for birdlife viewing at Death Valley exist. Furnace Creek Ranch at -200 feet elevation is one such location. It has a variety of habitats and a viewing platform. In addition, Scotty’s Castle is one of the better riparian habitats at 3,000 feet above sea level.
Death Valley Mammals
Mojave Desert mammals range from tiny mice and nine different bat species to mountain lions and bighorn sheep. You’ll also see squirrels, gophers, skunks, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and mule deer. Many of these have adapted to life in Death Valley.
Jackrabbits, for example, release heat through their large ears. And kangaroo rats can live without drinking water for their entire lives. They can survive strictly on the water they obtain from the seeds and plants they eat.
Bighorn sheep can live without drinking water for several days. In fact, they’ll sometimes lose a third of their body mass during a dehydration phase. However, as soon as they have access to water, they rehydrate by drinking several gallons in one sitting.
Life in Death Valley
All sorts of life thrives in Death Valley, much of it through adaptation to the dryness or the heat – or both. Have you been to Death Valley? What plants and animals did you see there?
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