Ecosystem analysis, and plants and animals in the Sonora Desert

The Sonora desert is situated on the border between Mexico and the United States and covers an area of some one hundred and twenty thousand square miles. It is described as one of the least hospitable ecosystems in North America. The Sonora desert receives less than ten inches of rain per year and temperatures vary from well above one hundred degrees in the summer time to below freezing in the winter time. Even though these temperatures vary so drastically in this area a wide variety of plants and animals live in the Sonora desert, including many species that are found nowhere else on the planet.

The Sonora desert is the home of the only venomous species of lizard which is native to North America; this lizard is the Gila monster. This animal can grow to two feet in length with a heavy body and distinct orange and black markings on its skin. The skin on the Gila monster has a bumpy texture and many scientists tend to think that the main reason is to protect it from the heat of the desert.

The Gila monsters diet consists of bird eggs and reptile eggs, but they also scavenge carrion whenever they get the opportunity. The venomous bite of the Gila monster is delivered through the use of its salivary glands which are located in its mandible. The Gila monster is considered venomous and potentially dangerous but they are very slow moving and most humans can get out of its way if confronted in the desert environment.

Another animal that is native to the Sonora desert is the Ringtail. These animals are small cat like mammals that resemble a typical cat but they are actually more closely related to raccoons.


They are nocturnal solitary animals that eat just about anything that they can find in their desert habitat. Ringtails also have small grayish brown bodies. One of the animal’s most prominent features is its large purplish eyes which stand out against the Ringtails facial markings and these animals prefer to be active at night in order to avoid the excessive heat of the daytime desert.

Also a very common site in the Sonora desert is the Harris hawk which is more commonly known as the red tailed hawk. These birds are midsized brownish colored raptors that live in transitional desert locations and river canyons. These animals are one of the few birds of prey that hunt in cooperative groups that are comprised of two to six birds scouting for potential prey and sharing the kill. The Harris hawk is physically different from other hawks because it possesses a darker plumage and substantially longer tail and wing feathers. A Harris hawk can reach heights of thirty inches and has a wingspan of forty inches and in some cases even longer.

Some of the plant life located in the Sonora desert is an unusual desert plant which is found in areas with abundant spring runoff, this desert plant is the Desert Globe Mallow and is considered to be a wildflower. These plants are semi-woody and can grow up to three feet as a shrub. During the spring these plants can bloom in waves throughout the entire summer and can survive in the extreme heat. These plants are the staple of many different desert animals such as the desert hare, which themselves become the prey of the Harris Hawk and the desert coyote.

The icon of the Sonora desert is the saguaro cactus which is a large tree like cactus which can grow to be over fifty feet in height. The saguaro cactus has a very long life span and it usually takes up to seventy years for it to develop a side arm. The cactus grows very slowly and when it rains it will soak up the water like a sponge which can be visually seen when it expands due to the rainfall.

These plants have for centuries been very important to the desert animals and the desert people that have inhabited the Sonora desert. Many Native American tribes that live within the confines of the Sonora desert have for centuries used the cactus for food and shelter. The woody ribs of the cactus have been used for the building of wikiups which are Native American shelters that are plastered over with the desert soil to form the finished shelter. The Native American population has also used the fruit of the saguaro cactus as a substantial food source. They usually make a jelly or jam from the fruit which can be very sweet and satisfying. The fruit of the cactus has been determined by many nutritionists to be extremely valuable in the treatment of diabetes and in preventing high cholesterol. The fruit of the saguaro also benefits the desert animals such as the javelina who are quick to take advantage of any fruit pods that happen to fall off of the plant and land on the ground. These animals in turn become the prey and food source of the animals that are higher up on the food chain.

This would be a viable biological ecosystem which is consisting of all of the living organisms or biotic components in this particular desert area. These components and organisms interact with one another and also with the surrounding environment such as the air, minerals in the soil, the water and also with sunlight. Key functions of an ecosystem include the capturing of sunlight energy and carbon energy through food webs while also releasing nutrients and carbon through the process of decomposition. Biodiversity affects the functioning of an ecosystem and these systems provide a variety of goods and services which people and other organisms heavily depend on. A healthy ecosystem consists of a biological community in conjunction with its abiotic surroundings which all work together as one system.


A healthy ecosystem is constantly exchanging energy and carbon with the existing environment; mineral nutrients are mostly cycled back and forth between plants, animals, and microbes within the soil itself. Nitrogen is crucial to a properly working ecosystem and nitrogen enters ecosystems through a biological nitrogen fixation which is deposited through precipitation, dust, and gases. Since most terrestrial ecosystems are nitrogen based, nitrogen recycling is an extremely important control on ecosystem production.

Nitrogen producing bacteria is an important factor for an ecosystem. This particular bacteria lives symbiotically within plants and also lives freely within the soil where it is cycled to other organisms that inhabit the ecosystem.

The ecology of ecosystems is composed of the flow of energy and materials through organisms and the physical environment. When studying an ecosystem it is important to realize how each organism depends on the other for survival and how they seem to be extremely fine tuned and balanced for optimum output of productivity.

The Saguaro Cactus, symbol of the Sonora desert


Odum, EP (1977) Fundamentals of ecology, third edition, Saunders New York

Schoener, Thomas W. (2009) Ecological Niche, The Princeton Guide in Ecology. Princeton University press , pp.2-13

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