California Desert Animals & Desert Plants

Endemic to the California desert, the Joshua tree is one of its most characteristic plants.
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California is home to a wide range of different landscapes and ecosystems, including desert. It has particularly extensive desert in the southern part of the state near the Mexican border. Here the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts merge to form an area that's home to hundreds of different plant and animal species. These organisms have adapted over thousands of years to survive in the hot, dry climate of the desert.

Desert Tortoise

This slow-moving reptilian herbivore spends most of its life in the underground burrows it digs to avoid the extreme heat. Two species of desert tortoise, the Sonoran Desert tortoise and the western Mojave tortoise, inhabit the California desert. These creatures can live to be up to 100 years old.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

The black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) is very common in the California desert, where it feeds on shrubs and grasses. This animal spends much of its life running from its many predators, which include coyotes, rattlesnakes, red-tailed hawks and eagles. They're numbers are still great though and in some parts of California the black-tailed jackrabbit is considered a pest.

Turkey Vulture

The extremely well adapted turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) feeds almost exclusively on carrion. These large carnivorous birds can have wingspans up to 72 inches long. Turkey vultures have been observed in huge flocks of up to 500 that usually congregate in late summer and early fall.


This carnivorous canine is not the easiest animal to spot in the Mojave Desert, but they are likely to be heard in the evening. Coyotes are skilled hunters with excellent senses of sight, hearing and smell. Full grown coyotes can be up to 4 feet long and 2 feet tall, and weighing as much as 30 lbs. They feed mostly on rodents and rabbits.

Mojave Yucca

Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) inhabits rocky slopes and flats throughout the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts up to an altitude of 7,000 feet. Also known as Spanish dagger, Mojave yucca is an evergreen shrub that can grow to be 16 feet tall. Yucca wood has the lowest ignition temperature of any other wood.

Desert Candle

This odd-looking plant inhabits open sandy flats between 2,000 and 5,000 feet throughout much of the Mojave Desert. Desert candle (Caulanthus inflatus) is a member of the mustard family and features a long, bright yellow stem with small reddish purple flowers arranged sporadically and unevenly along the stalk. This plant blooms between March and May.

Joshua Tree

The Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is one of the Mojave Desert’s characteristic plants and grows at elevations between 2,000 and 6,000 feet. Early pioneers named it the Joshua tree because they believed its spiky branches resembled “the Old Testament prophet Joshua waving them, with upraised arms, on toward the promised land,” according to DesertUSA.

Common Saltbush

This relative of the tumbleweed was once used by Native Americans to produce yellow dye. Common Saltbush (Atriplex polycarpa) is a grayish white shrub that have adapted well to the harsh, dry climate of the Mojave Desert. Cattle and sheep feed on this plant and it is a valuable source of salt and other minerals. It is one of the most common plants in the California desert.

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