Chihuahuan Desert

Written by Gail Baker Nelson
Published: September 1, 2022
Image Credit John A Davis/Shutterstock.com
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The Chihuahuan desert is the largest in North America and, it’s the most biologically diverse desert in the Western Hemisphere.

It is home to thousands of plant and animal species, some of which can’t be found anywhere else. This desert holds several U.S. national parks and mountain ranges and is between 3,500 and 5,000 feet above sea level.

How Large is the Chihuahuan Desert?

According to the U.S. National Parks Service, the Chihuahuan Desert Ecoregion is the largest desert in North America and spans about 250,000 square miles of desert habitat. It’s almost as big as Texas, which is 268,000 square miles. It encompasses several U.S. national parks including Big Bend National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and Guadalupe Mountains National park.

The only other large desert in North America is the Sonoran Desert, which is about 150,000 square miles.

The Chihuahuan Desert with cacti in the foreground and the Chisos Mountains in the bakcground and white clouds in a blue sky
The Chihuahuan Desert, with the Chisos Mountains in the background and prickly pear cacti in the foreground

Jeffrey M. Frank/Shutterstock.com

Where is the Chihuahuan Desert Located?

This extensive desert covers an area nearly the size of Texas. On the United States side of the border, the Chihuahuan Desert covers southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and the Trans-Pecos region of Texas. It’s bordered by the Sonoran Desert and Sierra Madre Mountain range on the west.

The Mexican side is even bigger and about 90% of the Chihuahuan Desert exists there. It covers much of the state of Chihuahua and areas of northeastern Durango, Coahuila, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, and Nuevo Leon.

The topography is varied and consisted of wide desert basins or valleys bordered by terraces, mesas, and mountain ranges. Salt playas or lakes can form where rainwater drains into the basins. Most areas of this desert are at fairly high elevations, and most of it sits between 3,500 and 5,000 feet above sea level.

Average Annual Rainfall

Deserts have been defined in several ways. Most often, they combine the total annual rainfall, temperature, humidity, and the number of days per year that receive rain. In general, deserts receive less than 10 inches of precipitation per year. Precipitation is usually in the form of rain, but it can also be in snow, mist, or fog.

Because they receive so little rain, the flora and fauna native to deserts like this one adapt, so they require less water. They evolve ways to make use of every bit of rainfall that comes their way. Cactus, for example, is a desert specialist that can store water in specialized cells. Some, like rattlesnakes, use their keeled scales to collect moisture, then lick the moisture that collects.

coiled western diamondback rattlesnake
Western diamondbacks are among the 170 reptile and amphibian species that call the Chihuahuan Desert home.

Audrey Snider-Bell/Shutterstock.com

How Much Rainfall Does It Get?

As little rain as it receives, the Chihuahuan Desert is still considered a “wetter” desert than most. While most areas in the Chihuahuan Desert get less than 10 inches of rain per year, the actual rainfall can vary from 6 to 20 inches per year. The desert here receives most of its rain during the summer months of July and August, often in the form of monsoonal thunderstorms.

Summer thunderstorms can also bring dangerous flash flooding that reshapes the landscape.

How Hot (or Cold) Does it Get?

Right before the summer monsoon season begins, the temperatures rocket upwards. The hottest month in this arid desert is usually June or July. During the summer months, temperatures in the Chihuahuan Desert can easily reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and drop into the 60s at night. The high altitudes of this desert allow wide temperature swings.

As harsh as the summer is, spring and fall in the Chihuahuan Desert are pleasant. The temperatures during this part of the year are much more comfortable, even though they still swing widely from about 40 to 89. As winter approaches, temperatures begin to cool, bringing bitterly cold nights and chilly days. During the winter, temperatures can drop well below freezing to 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

What Animals Live in the Chihuahuan Desert?

While many people envision a desert as a hot, desolate area, devoid of all life, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Chihuahuan Desert, in particular, is home to hundreds of plant and animal species, and some do not exist outside of the region.

This area is home to nearly 3,500 plant species and more than 170 amphibian and reptile species. At least 18 of the reptiles and about 1,000 plants are endemic to the area meaning that they don’t live anywhere else. There’s a surprisingly large number of fish in the region and of the 110 fish species, almost half of them, are endemic.

Here’s the shortlist of animals you may encounter in the expanses of the Chihuahuan Desert:

Reptiles

  • New Mexico whiptail (Aspidocelis neomexicana) is a female-only lizard species that is parthenogenetic.
  • The Trans-Pecos ratsnake (Bogertophis subocularis) is a large nonvenomous colubrid endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert.
  • The Bolson Tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus) was only discovered by western scientists in 1959.
  • The Texas banded gecko’s (Coleonyx brevis) range is centered in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Amphibians

Birds

The Chihuahuan Desert and its neighbor, the Sonoran Desert, are home to the highest number of bird species in the U.S. and northern Mexico.

  • Roadrunners (Geococcyx californianus) can run up to 20 miles per hour.
  • Chihuahuan Ravens (corvus cryptoleucus) are desert residents that are between the American crow and common raven in size.
  • Rufus Crowned Sparrows (Aimophila ruficeps) are long-tailed, bulky sparrows that forage underneath shrubs and grasses.

Mammals

  • There are still a few Mexican Gray Wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) in the Chihuahuan Desert, and work is underway to preserve the species.
  • Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) have large mule-like ears.
  • The kit fox (Vulpes macrotis) is one of the smallest Caninae species in North America
  • The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) lives in huge colonies.
Mexican Grey Wolf
Though you’re unlikely to see one during your visit to the Chihuahuan Desert, the elusive Mexican Grey Wolf is protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Nagel Photography/Shutterstock.com

What To Do and See in the Chihuahuan Desert

In the Chihuahuan Desert, there are wide desert grasslands and woodlands that are populated by unique plant life. With 8 primary types of woodland and scrub vegetation in the region, the habitat is more varied than you might expect. They are:

  • Chihuahuan Desert Scrub covers about 70% of the region.
  • Lechuguilla Scrub
  • Yucca Woodland
  • Prosopis-Atriplex scrub
  • Alkali Scrub
  • Gypsophilous Scrub
  • Cactus Scrub
  • Riparian Woodland

When one thinks of a desert, they often don’t envision seeing anything other than sand, rock, and cactus. Yet, the Chihuahuan Desert also has several large mountain ranges and even the spectacular Carlsbad Caverns within its boundaries. They are full of astonishing rock formations and unique wildlife you won’t find anywhere else.

A few of the mountain ranges in the Chihuahuan Desert:

  • The western border of the Chihuahuan Desert is the Sierra Madre Occidental range. It runs northwest to southeast through western and northwestern Mexico.
  • The Chisos Mountains are located in the Big Bend area. Volcanic activity created these mountains during the Eocene Epoch 35-44 million years ago.
  • The Organ Mountains are popular for camping and hiking.
  • The Franklin Mountains are a small mountain range that’s only 23 miles long and 3 miles wide. They extend north from El Paso, Texas into New Mexico.
  • The Guadalupe Mountains have the highest peak in Texas, Guadalupe peak, which is 8,751 feet above sea level.
  • The Davis Mountains are home to the largest prairie dog colony in the U.S.

The mountain ranges create “sky islands” of wetter, cooler climates either within or next to the desert. These areas have both broadleaf and conifer woodlands.

Next Up:

Yuca,Blooms,In,The,Chihuahuan,Desert,Of,Texas.
This desert is the largest one located entirely in North America
John A Davis/Shutterstock.com
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About the Author

Gail is a musician, author, and artist with more ideas than time. She loves learning about all things in the natural world. Her upcoming book, Pebble Worms and Fast Walkers is filled with all the random bits that kids love! She lives in North Texas with her husband, twin sons, dogs, cat, two red-eared sliders, and two ball pythons.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. DesertUSA.com, Available here: https://www.desertusa.com/chihuahuan-desert.html
  2. National Parks Service, Chihuahua Desert Ecoregion, Available here: https://www.nps.gov/im/chdn/ecoregion.htm
  3. Mexican gray wolf, Available here: https://www.endangered.org/animals/mexican-gray-wolf/
  4. Chihuahuan Raven | The Cornell Labe, All About Birds, Available here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chihuahuan_Raven/overview