Check out the names on a Death Valley map: Funeral Mountains. Last Chance Range. Coffin Canyon. Deadman Pass. They don’t sound like places where the living is easy. Park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg, who has made Death Valley his home for 25 years, agrees completely. “This is a very tough place for life to survive. There’s extreme heat and extreme dryness. But with that said, life manages to find a way.”
Indeed. North America’s hottest and driest place, which gets less than two inches of rain per year and bakes in blistering summer temperatures, harbours over 400 animal species and over 1,000 types of plants. The key is their adaptations—the evolutionary hardwiring that prepares them for Death Valley’s extremes. We asked Ranger Van Valkenburg for his insider’s knowledge on a few of the park’s most intriguing inhabitants, and the fascinating adaptions that help them survive—and even thrive—in this devilish climate.
—by Ann Marie Brown
The park’s largest native animals, desert bighorn sheep are always on the move, despite hauling some heavy baggage—up to 30 pounds of curling horns on full-size males. “The sheep’s adaptation is that they are very mobile, so they can go from water source to water source,” says Death Valley ranger Alan Van Valkenburg. Agility is also a critical factor that helps them make it in Death Valley. “Their survival strategy is their ability to travel to water and to climb mountain slopes.”
One of the best places to look for bighorns in Death Valley is in Titus Canyon, where a year-round freshwater spring serves as a watering hole.
Even though bighorns are big—up to five feet long and three feet tall at the shoulder—they are nearly invisible when standing still, thanks to fur the colour of desert sand. “There can be 20 sheep standing near the road and people drive right by them,” Van Valkenburg says. “The trick is to keep an eye out for something that is white and moving,” he says, noting that sheep’s white rumps sometimes give them away.
One of the best places to look for bighorns in Death Valley is in Titus Canyon, where a year-round freshwater spring serves as a watering hole for sheep and other animals, notes Van Valkenburg. “Wherever there’s a spring and mountains nearby, you have a chance of seeing sheep.”
Insider’s tip: Titus Canyon access is via a rough dirt road; you’ll need a 4WD with high clearance to drive it without the risk of getting stuck, which could be downright dangerous when you’re deep in the park with no cell reception.
Death Valley made a splash in February 2016 when parts of the usually barren desert burst into a riot of wildflowers—a rare event known as a “super bloom.” Death Valley ranger Alan Van Valkenburg says wildflowers bloom in Death Valley every spring, but this mega-bloom was a rare phenomenon that only happens when conditions are just right.
Plants in Death Valley have clever adaptions to survive, like taproots that extend 60 feet into the earth in search of water.
The flowers’ rare blaze might be an awesome photo op for humans, but it’s actually a sophisticated survival strategy for the plants. Rather than battle the heat every year, wildflower seeds lie dormant underground and pop out only under perfect weather conditions. “It requires an unusual rain pattern, specifically a lot of rain in the autumn,” explains Van Valkenburg. “We had big flash floods in October 2015, and then the super bloom happened in February.”
Still, even in normal years, Death Valley contains a fascinating array of flora that is cleverly adapted to thrive here, from taproots that extend 60 feet into the earth in search of water to tiny leaves and stems that slow evaporation. One particularly remarkable plant is the creosote bush, an olive-green shrub that is considered to be the most drought-tolerant plant in North America. Creosote bushes are known to live for more than a century, and are easily recognized by their bitter, resinous odour. According to Van Valkenburg, a creosote shrub has a wide network of shallow roots that quickly soak up rain after on the valley’s rare storms. “And it has a toxin that prevents its own seeds from sprouting near it. So, seeds can’t sprout and compete with Mom.”
The inch-long, silver-coloured desert pupfish has learned to embrace change. Once thriving in the ancient inland lakes and streams that filled Death Valley more than 250 million years ago, the pupfish got stranded in a few meagre springs as bigger bodies of water dried up. But the fish didn’t just survive in their new—albeit more cramped—surroundings. They adapted.
“Because the pupfish were stranded in isolated areas, they evolved into different subspecies,” says park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg. “Now each type of pupfish has different adaptations. For example, the endangered Devils Hole pupfish lives in a warm spring in an underground cave on Death Valley’s east side. It can withstand very hot water temperatures, higher than 90°F.”
Though the desert pupfish is an endangered species, the stream by the boardwalk at Salt Creek is usually “squirming with fish” in spring, says ranger Alan Van Valkenburg.
Other localized subspecies are equally unique—and bizarre. The Salt Creek pupfish lives in an ultra-salty stream. While its ancestors used to swim in freshwater, this subspecies can now withstand saline water—an evolutionary adaptation similar to humans drinking gasoline instead of tap water.
Even though desert pupfish don't grow much bigger than a baby’s pinky finger and are endangered species, they are easy to spot during their spring mating season at Salt Creek, seven miles north of Furnace Creek. “For most of March and April, the stream by the boardwalk is squirming with fish,” notes Van Valkenburg. But once waters recede, the little fish leave, moving “far upstream to wait out the heat in deep source pools,” he adds.
This well-loved icon of the American Southwest may be one of the most entertaining and easily spotted creatures in Death Valley, often seen around the developed areas of Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. But don’t let those comical looks fool you. The lanky, foot-tall bird with the rumpled hairdo, a member of the cuckoo family, is actually a ferocious hunter and carnivore. “They eat lizards, insects, small birds, snakes, and whatever they can get. They’re always on the hunt,” says ranger Alan Van Valkenburg.
Though this ground-dwelling bird can reach top speeds of 20 miles per hour, it often just pokes around looking for food.
In the 1960s cartoon, the roadrunner perpetually outsmarts Wile E. Coyote, and Van Valkenburg says that characterization seems fair. “Roadrunners are intelligent. They’re like a tiny version of the velociraptor from the Jurassic Park movie. They’re very smart and very quick.”
Although this ground-dwelling bird can zip by at 20 miles per hour, it spends time standing still or poking around for prey. And don’t try to listen for the “beep-beep” call of cartoon lore. Instead, try to catch its rhythmic clucking.
Unlike many birds that migrate out of Death Valley for summer, the roadrunner stays year-round, and seems to prefer warmer days to cooler ones. “In winter, they come out early in the morning, find a sheltered spot, and turn their backs to the sun,” says Van Valkenburg. “It’s a solar warm-up for them and helps get them going in the cold.” The birds spread their feathers to expose the black skin underneath, absorbing even more heat.
It’s hard to imagine a cactus not growing in the desert, but that’s the case in Death Valley’s most extreme settings. The rocks-hot-enough-to-fry-an-egg heat, severe drought, and dangerous build-up of salts in the lowest parts of the valley make it too tough for even a hardy cactus to grow. But head for the hills to more cactus-friendly conditions to discover these prickly succulents. Visit in spring and to catch their showy flowers—some of the prettiest in Death Valley.
The cholla’s inch-long spines help shade the stems, keeping air cooler closest to the plant.
Travel to the gentle slopes surrounding the valley and you’ll start to see cacti dotting the landscape. Just 500 feet above the valley floor, look for beavertail, a low-growing cactus with greyish-green “paddles” dotted with small spines called glochids—fine bristles that look harmless but have penetrating barbs. In spring, brilliant magenta flowers add splashes of colour to the dry landscape.
You may also find the beavertail’s distant cousin, the silver cholla. Be careful walking near this branching cactus—spine-covered sections of cholla branches break off if brushed even slightly. But spines do more than ward off enemies; they can also help a cactus survive. The cholla’s inch-long spines help shade the stems, keeping air cooler closest to the plant.
Another eye-catcher is cottontop barrel cactus, a “clumpy” cactus that grows in clusters of 20 to 40 spine-covered barrels, some up to three feet high. Take a closer look to understand the “cottontop” name. Near the barrel’s crown, look for a clump of white, woolly hairs, a favourite during nesting season when birds collect them to line their nests. Like all barrel cactus, the cottontop is pleated like an accordion, so it can shrink as it uses up its internal water supply. These folds also channel precious rainwater directly to the cactus’s base.
One of Death Valley’s most endearing creatures is this diminutive fox, a member of the dog family that often seems as tame as a family pet. “They will come right up to people, especially in the campgrounds,” notes Death Valley park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg. “They seem to be attracted by campfires, but they’re not coming for food like the coyotes do,” he notes. “They’re just curious.”
About the size of a housecat, the kit fox has a bushy tail and large, pointed ears. Those distinctive ears make it look cuddly-cute, but they also help the fox dissipate body heat. “This animal is very well adapted to the desert. Its ears keep it cool and also help it navigate at night,” notes Van Valkenburg. “It rarely needs to drink because it obtains water from its food.”
That food tends to be other nocturnal creatures, like rabbits and kangaroo rats. A kit fox can chase its prey at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour—but only for short bursts. Most of the time, the fox maintains a steady, dog-like trot to preserve its energy. Even the fox’s feet have Death Valley adaptions: Stiff tufts of fur protect its paws from hot desert sands.
These big-eyed creatures were branded with an unfortunate last name. “Kangaroo rats are not shaped like rats at all. They’re almost round, with a long, fluffy tail,” says Death Valley ranger Alan Van Valkenburg. “Most people would say they’re cute.”
The kangaroo rat also has a built-in humidifier in its underground den.
But that first name? A perfect fit. These little critters—with bodies the size of a small fist—use their long hind legs to jump as far as nine feet. According to Van Valkenburg, the diminutive rodents tuck their small front legs out of the way when they jump, and use their long tails like rudders “to help them steer at high speeds.” If you’re driving through the park at night, drive slowly and look for kangaroo rats hopping across the roads, their large, luminous eyes shining in your car’s headlights.
According to Van Valkenburg, the kangaroo rat “is one of the desert’s most well-adapted creatures.” The rat’s unique metabolism and specialized kidneys allow it to survive without drinking fresh water or eating moisture-containing leaves. The kangaroo rat also has a built-in humidifier in its underground den. “Moisture from its breath keeps its den moist, and it has a specialized organ in its nasal passages that allows it to reabsorb moisture back into its system,” says Van Valkenburg.
More than a dozen types of lizards live in Death Valley, and they scurry and scramble all over trails, rocks, and even dunes. “They’re the one creature almost everyone will see, even on a short visit.” One of park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg’s favorites is the zebra-tailed lizard, which gets its name from its distinctive black-and-white striped tail.
“Sometimes they get so excited that they will stop suddenly and wave their tails back and forth over their heads.” — park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg
“They can get up on their hind legs and dash around on two feet, like little dinosaurs,” says Van Valkenburg. “Sometimes they get so excited that they will stop suddenly and wave their tails back and forth over their heads.” It might look like oddball behavior, but even this wacky wiggle has a purpose: If there’s a roadrunner, coyote, or other predator in sight, the lizard is betting that the predator will make a grab for the flashy tail. If that happens, the lizard—like many of its kind—can miraculously shed the chunk of captured tail and make a dash for safety.
Not all lizards are deft athletes, though. “The chuckwalla is the opposite because it is not fast at all,” explains Van Valkenburg. This odd-looking lizard is big and fat. “The biggest ones are about a foot-and-a-half long,” he notes. “And they’re vegetarians, which is unusual for a lizard. They love to eat flowers.”
In lieu of speed, the chuckwalla relies on defensive maneuvers. When a chuckwalla feels threatened, it will head to the nearest rock and squeeze into a crack. It wedges its thick body inside and starts gulping air to inflate itself, so it’s completely wedged in. That’s good enough to stump today’s predators, but not the native Shoshone Tribe, who once lived in scattered villages in Death Valley. The Shoshone would search for chuckwallas, prized for their their meaty tails. For this, the Shoshone created a specialized tool: a long stick with a backward-pointed hook, which they could slide into the chuckwalla’s hiding place, puncture the lizard, deflate it, and pull it out.
Over the years, assorted adventurous humans—borax miners, pioneers, and just plain loners—have scraped out a life in the Death Valley region. (Case in point: the indefatigable ballerina Marta Becket, who launched Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction in 1968.)
But just outside the Death Valley National Park boundaries in the tiny town of Olancha, visual artist Jael Hoffmann hasn’t just made a life; she has made the desert come to life.
In her sculpture garden near the Highway 190 entrance on the west side of Death Valley National Park, Hoffmann’s metal-art characters populate the desert floor. In her own words on her website, Hoffmann notes that the placement here has profound meaning. “The rugged environments my sculptures chose to inhabit are not coincidental, but supportive of their unadorned messages.”
Thousands of people have stopped on their way to and from the park to walk among Hoffmann’s thought-provoking creations, which are framed by panoramic views of the lofty High Sierra. There’s a towering female hitchhiker carrying a suitcase, a few toothy monsters, and a colour-splashed Give and Take alien, who holds one bucket that accepts trinkets and coins and another that gives them away. The alien’s face is a mirror, compelling the observer to make only fair trades.
The sculpture garden is located just west of U.S. 395 in Olancha. Take the Walker Creek Road turnoff, then turn north on the first dirt road.