Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

Flora & Fauna

Big Bend is famous for its natural resources and spectacular geology. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants (including approximately 60 cacti species), 11 species of amphibians, 56 species of reptiles, 40 species of fish, 75 species of mammals, 450 species of birds, and about 3,600 species of insects. The park boasts more types of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.

 

Big Bend National Park also marks the northernmost range of many plants and animals, such as the Mexican long-nosed bat. Ranges of typically eastern and typically western species of plants and animals come together or overlap here. Here many species are at the extreme limits of their ranges. Latin American species, many from the tropics, range this far north, while northern-nesting species often travel this far south in winter. Contrasting elevations create additional, varied micro-climates that further enhance the diversity of plant and animal life and the park's wealth of natural boundaries.

 

Flora:

 

Big Bend National Park is a great place to learn about plants!  Many of the plants here in the Chihuahuan desert have spines or barbs that might catch on your cloths as you walk by them.  These spines are to protect the plant from animals that might be after thier water or fruits.  Those that do not have spines, will catch your eyes with thier flowers or general appearance.  Over 1,000 species of plants are found within Big Bend National Park.  In recent years park botanists, technicians and volunteers have found many new species and rediscovered some that haven't been seen in years.  One of those plants, Hidalgo ladies tresses hasn't been seen in over 60 years!

 

COMMON PLANTS

 

Agave:

 

Agaves are a low growing evergreen plant with succulent leaves that form a bowl shape or basal rosette. Colonies are often formed from the underground sprouts. The leaves are tipped in a hard spine and the leaf margins may also have spines. Agaves bloom once in their lifetime and then die. The rapidly growing flower stalk seems to exhaust all of its resources to survive. The fruit is a brown capsule with three cells and two rows of black seeds. There are eleven species of agave in Texas. 

 

There are three agaves in Big Bend National Park. Agave lechuguilla, commonly called lechuguilla, is the indicator plant of the Chihuahuan Desert. This means it is only found in the Chihuahuan Desert and nowhere else in the world! Lechuguilla was a very important source of fiber for Native Americans and is still used today to make rope in Mexico. The roots of the plant are high in saponins, so they taste bitter but are a good source of soap. The lechuguilla blooms once after growing three to twenty years. 

 

Agave havardiana or the century plant is the largest agave in the park. It blooms once in its life after growing 20-50 years. Mexican long-nosed bats pollinate the bright yellow flowers. The leaves of the century plant have a blue-gray color. The century plant also provides an excellent source of fiber for ropes, mats, sandals, etc. The hearts of the plants were harvested by the Native Americans and then baked in a stone lined pit for two to three days. Once baked, the plant provided a source of food that could be dried and stored to help them to survive the long winter. The dried flower stalks served as building material. Century plants in Mexico provide the alcoholic beverages of pulque, mescal, and tequila. 

 

The third agave in Big Bend National Park is actually a hybrid. Agave gracilipes is the plant that occurs when the century plant and lechuguilla cross breed. It looks like a large lechuguilla or a small century plant. It also provided fiber for the Native Americans. 

 

Sotol:

 

Sotol (Dasylirion liophyllum) is composed of a cluster of numerous linear, flattened leaves that have hooked teeth along the margins of the leaf. The leaf bases are spoon-like. A tall flower stalk is produced each spring that has light colored, nondescript flowers clustered together. The fruit is three-winged and triangular. Twenty species occur in southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico. 

 

Sotol was an important source of materials for basket making. The young flower stalks were eaten, as were the seeds. The heart of the plant was cooked along with agave hearts in a stone-lined pit for several days and then eaten. The stalks were used to make temporary shelters, porches, roofs, corrals and walking sticks. When the sap is fermented it produces the alcoholic beverage also called sotol. 

 

Nolina:

 

Nolina species have linear leaves that are long, numerous, and clustered. Margins of the leaves are finely toothed. The flower is short stemmed, with cream-colored flowers. The leaves were an important source of material for mats, sandals, and basket making. However, the plant was not eaten since it is poisonous and could cause liver and kidney damage. There are five species in the Trans-Pecos area and 30 species in the U.S. and Mexico.

 

Oaks:

 

There are 45 species of oaks (Quercus sp.) in Texas and nine in Big Bend National Park. These trees or shrubs have simple alternate leaves with margins that are smooth, lobed, or toothed. The fruit or acorn is one celled, one seeded, and sits in a cup that partially envelops the seed. Hybridization is common among oaks. The oaks of Big Bend National Park are relic species—left behind on the mountaintops from a cooler time. The acorns on most species are edible. They need to be soaked in water before eating to remove some of the bitter taste. The early settlers of this area commonly made a flour or meal from the leached acorns. Oaks produce a hard wood important for firewood, tools, and furniture making.

 

Mesquite:

 

Prosopis glandulosa, or honey mesquite and Prosopis pubescens, screwbean mesquite, are both found in Big Bend National Park. These shrubby trees are armed with straight, stout spines that are solitary or paired, and have deep, drought-defying roots. The fruit is a tough pod where the seeds are partitioned and embedded. The fruits were an important food source for the Native Americans. The developing pods are sweet raw or cooked. The seeds are also edible and could be ground into flour or meal. The meal could be mixed with water to make a lemony drink. The drink was also fermented. The sap or pitch, was used to waterproof baskets, make candy, and produce a black dye. The sap was mixed with mud and plastered on the head. Once dry, it was removed leaving the hair shiny, black, and lice-free. The inner bark and roots were a source of fiber for baskets. The hard wood was an important source of tools and weapons. Today mesquite is used in posts, carvings, tool handles, gunstocks, and for barbecues.  

 

Piñon Pine:

Pinus cembroides, or the Mexican piñon pine, is a small evergreen tree with needles in clusters of two to five. They produce a woody cone that matures in two years and produces an edible nut. Although the nut has a hard shell, it is very tasty and was prized by the Native Americans. The nut stored well for winter and was high in protein and calories. This tree was once more widespread in cooler times and is now considered a relic species. It provided pitch or sap for waterproofing baskets, chewing gum, and also was used medicinally to treat sore throats and remove splinters. A tea made from the needles is high in vitamin C. 

 

Juniper:

Rose-fruited juniper, Juniperus erythrocarpa, is the shrubby juniper of the park. Typically growing no taller that five feet, the alligator juniper, Juniperus deppeana, has checkered or scaly bark and is taller and more tree-like than other junipers in the area. Drooping juniper, or Juniperus flaccida, is common in Mexico but only found in the U.S. in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. Its needles droop causing this small tree to appear like it always needs a drink of water. The bark of all three juniper species provided a source of fiber for sandals, mats, and baskets for early Native Americans. The cones are small and berry-like, and were used in seasoning meats and for beads in necklaces.  

CACTI / SUCCULENTS

 

Yuccas:

 

Yuccas are members of the lily family and bloom every year if there has been enough rainfall. The four yuccas of Big Bend National Park, Faxon yucca or giant dagger (Yucca faxoniana), beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata), soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) and Spanish dagger or torrey yucca (Yucca treculean), all have trunks that elevate the leaves above the ground. The trunk is often covered with dry, dead leaves. The leaves are long, fibrous, and spine-tipped. The cream-white flowers appear in late spring and produce a fleshy or dry fruit with black seeds. The flowers are pollinated primarily by the yucca moth. Native Americans ate the flower buds, petals, and young stalks. The fruits and seeds were also eaten. The fibrous leaves were used to make cloth, rope, mats, sandals, and baskets. The root provided soap and was used as a laxative.

 

Prickly Pear:

 

There are sixteen species of Opuntia in the Trans-Pecos area of Texas. These species tend to hybridize, so it is often difficult to determine which prickly pear is which. There are two general varieties. The chollas that have cylindrical stems and the prickly pears that have flattened stems. The cacti have spines instead of leaves to conserve water and carry out all food production through the stems of the plants. The spines are numerous and can be yellow, brown, pink, red, or black in color depending on the species. The flowers appear in April and are usually yellow (prickly pears) or pink (chollas). Fruits are usually maroon (prickly pears) or yellow (chollas) and some varieties are very juicy and sweet. The Native Americans ate these fruits, called tunas, and today we use them to make jellies and syrups. The young cactus pads or nopals were used as a potherb (like greens) or pickled. Their taste is typically described as a cross between green pepper and okra. The seeds were eaten in soups or ground up for flour. The pads were sometimes split and soaked in water and could be used to bind wounds with the sticky side down. The insides are similar to aloe vera and softened the skin and lessened pain. The bitter juice from the pads could be used as an emergency source of water. In Mexico, fields of prickly pear are grown for a scale insect, the cochineal, which grows on the pads. This insect is used to produce a beautiful natural purple dye.

 

CACTUS

 

There are more species of cacti (or cactuses, either is accepted) in Big Bend National Park than any other park. We boast as many as 65 species of cactus can be found in the park. The diversity of cactus is a result of our location and the diversity of landforms in the park i.e. elevation, geology, precipitation, etc.

 

Many park visitors plant their visits to Big Bend National Park around viewing these beautiful plants when they are in bloom. In most years April is the best month to see many species of cactus in bloom, though in really wet years we could have something blooming each month of the year.

 

Did you know that cactus are only found in the Americas? So what makes a cactus a cactus?

 

The answer to these questions can be found right here in Big Bend. First, cacti are succulents meaning they store water beneath a thick fleshy outer "skin" often succulents have a waxy appearance as well. Not all succulents are cacti though. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the cactus is its areole.  The areole is a feature that is only found in the cactus family. This is an opening on the epidermis of the cactus where spines come out and gas exchange occurs with the environment.

 

SUCCULENTS

 

Big Bend has numerous succulent plants, many of which are unique to the Chihuahuan desert only. There is a world of diversity just in this one group. One of the most popular plants in Big Bend is the Century plant, which is an agave. Often it is considered a plant that blooms once in a hundred years, this is a misconception. Research has shown that century plants can bloom after 20 to 30 years of growth.

 

The agave family is well represented in Big Bend and one of the more common agaves here is the lechuguilla plant. Lechuguilla is the indicator species of the Chihuahuan desert, in other words if you were dropped out of the sky and you landed on one of these spiny devils, you would know that you are in the Chihuahuan desert.

 

Another popular succulent plant in Big Bend is the candellila plant. Even to this day people are using this plant to produce candellila wax, a product that is found in more items than you are probably aware of. Candellila was an important plant to many of the settlers to Big Bend before it was established as a park, and one town (Glenn Springs) was centered around its refinement. 

 

GRASSES

 

In terms of geographic distribution and the number of individual plants, the grass family is the most successful flowering plant family in the world! Over 8,000 species exist worldwide, covering one-third of the planet. They are found in the tropics, marshes, forests, tundra, and desert environments. Native Americans harvested over fifty kinds of grass seeds. No one type was considered an important food source, but when combined the seeds had many uses. The seeds could be boiled for a mush, made into bread, ground into flour or meal, and used to thicken gravy. The seeds could be eaten raw, but tasted better dried, roasted, or ground. The leaves of many species were used to make baskets, mats, or flutes. Today two-thirds of the crops cultivated on earth are cereal grasses such as wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, rye, millet, sugar cane, and hay.

 

Grasses in the desert?

Sure enough, even though Big Bend is mostly a desert environment there are a few large expanses of grassland and even some open savanna type areas in the park. Some early settlers to the Big Bend suggest much of the park was once a grassland. For example in J. O. Langford's book "Big Bend: A homesteader's story" he describes the Big Bend lush with grasses and "(I)t stood knee-deep to a horse everywhere". 

 

Langford was most likely referring to the grasslands north of Big Bend National Park in the Marathon basin or just east of the Davis mountains. However, even logs from earlier visits to the Big Bend by Spaniards in the 17th century reported the area to be lush with grasses.

 

Nonetheless, today much of the old grasslands are since gone. Without them many species have struggled to survive in the park. Animals like pronghorn, prairie dogs, wild turkey, Mexican gray wolf, and bighorn sheep were more common before the ranching and settlement in the Big Bend country. Wether or not it was hunting by the ranchers, competition between species for resources, or overuse of the water sources that ended their persistence in the area we may never know. 

 

We do know that grasslands were once part of the park and we are involved in a process to reintroduce this ecosystem to the park. This process will be a challenge with ever increasing numbers of introduced species, the problems associated with disturbed land, and drought which is typical in this desert environment.

 

TREES & SHRUBS

 

Depending upon the area of the park that you visit the common trees and shrubs will vary. Down along the Rio Grande you will find riparian vegetation, in the desert the shrubs may be well spaced but there is a high diversity nonetheless. Once you reach the higher elevations of the Chisos mountains you will find a piñon-oak-juniper forest.

 

Riparian trees and shrubs:

 

The most obvious trees and shrubs in the campgrounds along the river are cottonwood, mesquite, and huisache. As you leave the more manicured areas, typical vegetation by the river also includes willows, retama, and the invasive pest tamarisk or saltcedar.

 

Desert shrubs:

 

Shrubs are the most dominant type of vegetation in the desert. The most common shrubs in the desert are creasote bush, ocotillo, cenizo, sotol, and mesquite. Also at desert springs you might find willows or cottonwoods along with other more riparian vegetation. The desert ecosystem heavily relies upon the presence of shrub vegetation as do many of the other plants and animals.

 

Mountain trees and shrubs:

Though the most common trees in the Chisos mountains are piñon, oak, and juniper. There are a great number of other types of trees, many occur at this elevation and cannot be found for tens to hundreds of miles. Of those, the quaking aspen, douglas fir, drooping juniper, and ponderosa pine standout as the most popular.

 

WILDFLOWERS

 

Big Bend National Park is home to over 1300 plant taxa (about 1200 species). Hundreds of these species and varieties are showy, fragrant, or unique-looking enough to be generally categorized as "wildflowers". In the Big Bend, we usually have two major flowering periods per year — spring and late summer. The spring flower season, because it depends largely on the amount and timing of winter precipitation, is less predictable than the summer season, which is fueled by the dependable summer monsoon.

 

Many annual plants like bluebonnets and some mustards will only bloom in early spring. The majority of the 46 cactus species in the park bloom in mid to late spring. Many of these cactus species produce very large, showy flowers in varying shades of yellow, red, pink, and purple. The yuccas, including the impressive giant dagger, usually flower February-April. Many shrubs and small trees, such as the fragrant yellow huisache in the southeast part of the park, and the bright purple fruity-smelling Texas mountain laurel also bloom in March and April. In March and April, bright red bunches of flowers emerge at the ends of the spiny whip-like branches of ocotillo and provide nectar and pollen for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. The spring flowering season frequently starts in late February along the Rio Grande and proceeds upslope to the foothills of the Chisos Mountains by late April.

 

The late summer flowering season is dominated by members of the sunflower family. These plants are sometimes called composites because the "flower" is actually a tightly clustered group of very small individual flowers. Most summer-flowering composites are yellow or white, with yellows being abundant in the Chisos Mountains. The summer season also brings red, blue, and purple true sage flowers to the Chisos. These fantastic shows can last well into the fall, before the first freezes hit the mountains. Another group of plants commonly called "desert sage" or ceniza grows in the mid- and lower elevations of the park and produces magenta and purple flowers quickly after significant summer rain storms. These are not sages (genus Salvia) at all, but are members of the figwort family.

 

Many plants are opportunistic flowerers and will bloom whenever it is warm and wet enough, from February through November, and even sometimes in the middle of winter. Several yellow composites, like the forbs yerba raton, dogweed, paperflower, and the shrubby skeleton-leaf goldeneye bloom almost continuously in wet years. Many thorny acacia species will produce white to yellow blooms opportunistically throughout the warm months. The most common perennial mustard in the park, the wonderfully fragrant bi-colored mustard, can bloom extensively in the spring and then again, though less spectacularly, in late summer.

 

Angiosperms (flowering plants) like those mentioned above are the most numerous and diverse group of plants is the park, but dozens of gymnosperms (cone-bearing plants like pine and juniper) and non-seed producing plants (ferns) also grow here, especially in the cooler, wetter Chisos Mountains. Not all "flowering" plants produce stereotypical colorful petal-bearing flowers. In fact, one of the most important and diverse families of flowering plants in the Big Bend (and the world) is the grass family. Grasses produce numerous small, reduced flowers in a wide array of flower arrangement, all well-adapted to wind pollination. Viewed up close with a hand lens or macro camera lens, these diminutive flowers can be quite beautiful when they produce flowering tillers in the rainy season.

 

Wherever you are in Big Bend, no matter what time of year, you are likely to find something in bloom. In the spring and late summer you may be astounded at the abundance and variety of wildflowers. But remember that this is a desert, and long dry periods are not uncommon here, so there are times when flowers are few and far between. "Drought" is a natural part of this environment, and these plants have adapted to survive the dry periods. Remember also not to pick or trample our wildflowers so that they can live, grow, and flower another day.

 

 

Fauna:

 

Studying and managing wildlife is seldom an easy task, but wildlife management along the border presents special challenges. Observing wildlife in the U.S. may tell only half the story, since many migratory birds, bats, and insects spend their winters deep in Mexico. Remoteness, inaccessible terrain, and a sometimes unstable political climate can make it difficult for wildlife researchers to gain information on wildlife along the border or far into the interior of Mexico. Problems can also arise when different countries have differing attitudes toward the same animal; one country may protect a certain species while another may want to eradicate it. Laws may protect wildlife and their habitat on this side of the Rio Grande while leaving them unprotected on the other side of the river

 

INVERTEBRATES

 

Big Bend National Park is home to a very large diversity in forms of invertebrates. A typical trip to the park will offer many sightings of tiny creatures like the Velvet Mite (Trombidium spp.) to the large Tarantulas (Aphonopelma chalcodes). The many forms of hard-bodied invertebrates have been numbered near 3,600 species and counting. Given the remoteness and the lack of research, the parks invertebrate checklist is still growing.

 

Some of the most easily sighted invertebrates in the park include Millipedes (Diplopoda), Butterflies (Lepidoptera), Dragonflies (Odonata), and Grasshoppers (Orthoptera). Visitors interested in finding common invertebrates in Big Bend National Park can explore this section of the website to learn more.

 

Scorpians:

 

From drought-resistant exoskeletons, to their secretive lifestyles, scorpions have all the traits of desert specialists. Some visitors however may not be able to look beyond their own "fear factor" to see how interesting scorpions really are.

 

Creepy features of scorpions include the pincers (pronounced pinsers) which are used for feeding purposes only, and of course the stinger or telson, which injects the venom used to kill prey. Whether it is the pinching or the stinging, we should not feel threatened at all. Very few park visitors even see a scorpion, and believe it or not, it is likely that during your entire Big Bend visit, you will not be stung or pinched by a single one.

 

The truth is, a scorpion would never actually attack a human. When a human is stung, it is a defensive warning, the message being "do not cross this line." Backpackers and campers should check bedding, clothing, and shoes if they've been left out overnight. Never walk in the dark here without a flashlight. A sting is painful, much like a honeybee, but may also cause a tingling sensation throughout the body as nerve endings react to the witch's brew of chemicals in the venom. Deadly to insects, the venom causes only discomfort in larger creatures. Many scorpion predators, including coyotes, owls, snakes, bats, and hawks might eat a lot more of them if they didn't have to face a possible sting.

 

Scorpions are predators as well as prey. They receive most of their moisture from eating tiny insects and even other scorpions. Nocturnal creatures, from a dark perch they wait until prey approaches. Once near, the pincers lash out and grasp the victim like two pairs of strong pliers. If it struggles, the prey is stung and immobilized...dinner is served.

 

The scorpion is nothing to be feared. Instead, admire this desert specialist's unique features and ability to thrive in the harsh wilds of Big Bend.

 

Big Bend Bugs:

 

What's the most common form of wildlife you're likely to see in Big Bend National 

Park?

 

Ask many people that question, and you'll probably hear answers like "javelinas" or "turkey vultures." But while 75 species of mammals and 450 species of birds have been seen in the park, over 3,600 species of insects have been found here! The identification of a new species of beetle just a few years ago in the Chisos Mountains tells us that countless more unknown insects may still await discovery.

 

Insects make up more than half of all living things on Earth, comprising over one million species. They outnumber humans by 200 million to one: for every human, there are 200 million insects. This figure does not include non-insect arthropods, such as spiders and scorpions.

 

Observing insects, in the park or at home, will open up a whole new world of dimensions, color, form, activity, and beauty. You'll find insects living in flowers, wood, earth, fabric, hair, blood, flesh, water, and dung. You'll find them eating these same things, as well as grain, fungi, microbes, glue, spiders, and each other.

 

So where do you begin in your search to discover the insect world? Like most living things, insects are attracted to water, especially the still water of ponds. Sit quietly near a pond and watch for dragonflies and damselflies. These large, brightly-colored insects are voracious predators, and their legs form a "basket" that enables them to catch other insects in flight.

 

With its huge compound eyes, the dragonfly can detect prey up to 40 feet away. You might see clusters of small black beetles swimming and spinning at random around the water surface, resembling a group of bumper cars. These aptly-named whirligig beetles have two pairs of compound eyes; one pair looks for prey above the water surface, while the other pair looks for prey below the water. Beneath the surface, you might see water boatmen sculling through the water, powered by legs that are shaped like oars.

 

The arid desert also provides habitat for insects. Perhaps one of the most famous desert insects is the yucca moth. Observe a blooming yucca at night, and you may witness an example of insect pollination as these tiny white moths dart among the large white yucca flowers. The female yucca moth collects a ball of pollen from one or more yucca flowers. She deposits her eggs in the ovary of a flower, then puts the ball of pollen on the flower stigma, where it will fertilize the flower eggs. The moth larvae then feed on the developing seeds. A single yucca seedpod contains well over 100 seeds, and the moth larvae, which usually number only 1 or 2 per pod, eat relatively few seeds, sometimes fewer than a dozen each. While the yucca moth certainly benefits from this arrangement, the yucca itself also benefits, as most yuccas would remain un-pollinated and would not bear fruit if it were not for the pollination done by the moth.

 

Easier to witness is the pollinating activity of several types of bees found in the park. Most common are bumblebees, especially in beebrush plants in the Chisos Mountains. These large, heavy-bodied, fuzzy bees have black and yellow stripes on their abdomens. Although not native here, two types of honey bees are also found in Big Bend. European, or domestic, honey bees were brought to the United States from Europe several centuries ago and are now vital pollinators and honey producers; they provide 80% of the pollination required by agricultural crops in the United States, and one-third of our diet comes from crops pollinated by honey bees. These small bees appear virtually identical to their recently-immigrated cousins, the Africanized honey bees.

 

Only experts with powerful microscopes can distinguish the two types of honey bees. Behaviorally, though, these two honey bees are different. European honey bees are generally not very aggressive when threatened. Only a few bees defend the hive, and they not easily disturbed. When they are, they will usually only chase the attacker a short distance. Africanized honey bees, on the other hand, can be very aggressive. When they are threatened, many bees defend the hive. They are easily disturbed, especially by vibrations such as those from lawnmowers. Africanized honey bees will chase an attacker up to a quarter mile. We think of these as two distinct species of honey bees. However, they sometimes hybridize, producing crossbreeds with variable temperaments.

 

When entomologists analyze honey bees for identity, they study a number of anatomical characteristics and identify the degree of hybridization exhibited by a particular bee or colony of bees. For instance, a honey bee might be 25% European and 75% Africanized, or 50% Africanized and 50% European. Africanized honey bees have not attacked anyone in the park, but if bees chase you, you should:

• RUN as fast as you can! It helps to run in a zigzag pattern.

• Seek shelter in a building, car, or tent. As a last resort, seek heavy brush.

 

Many hikers return from the summit of Emory Peak reporting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ladybugs gathered on the peak, forming a bright red and black cover on every rock and tree trunk. These beetles appear to cluster at high elevations all over the southwestern United States for reasons that are not clearly understood. Many scientists believe that ladybugs fly to high elevations to escape temperature extremes; others believe that this gathering has to do with mating.

 

Spring and fall are good times to see monarch butterflies in Big Bend National Park. The park lies just west of one of the monarchs' primary migration routes and receives many monarch visitors as they fly through here in April en route to summering grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada. In September they fly south to wintering grounds in central Mexico. These black and orange butterflies travel over 1,000 miles on their migratory journey, covering up to 80 miles per day. No one monarch makes the entire round-trip migration; since they stop to breed along the way, the butterflies that we see flying north in the spring may be five generations removed from those that originally migrated south in the fall. Monarchs are only one of many species of moths and butterflies that inhabit the park. Look for red admirals, mourning cloaks, sisters, dog-faced sulphurs, and various types of swallowtails; brilliantly colored tiger swallowtails stand out the most, but the duller pipevine swallowtails are more common. At night look for the black witch moth, one of the largest moths in North America.

 

In the late spring and early summer, people often see tarantula hawks flying low over the ground, searching for tarantulas. These large black wasps with golden wings, also known as pepsis wasps, will sting people if annoyed but seldom do, so intent are they upon finding arachnid prey. The female tarantula hawk stings the spider only to paralyze it, but not kill it. She drags the inert body into her tunnel, lays her eggs on it, and then seals the tunnel shut with pebbles and dirt. The wasp larvae hatch and eat the tarantula's body for a week or two. If the female wasp had killed the tarantula instead of paralyzing it, it would decay before the larvae could eat all of it. When the larvae finish eating the spider, they are old enough to move onto their next developmental phase.

 

While there are many types of grasshoppers in the park, two types are most commonly seen. The desert lubber grasshopper is large, chunky, and sports a vivid black and yellow body; when it flies, it flashes bright red wings. The smaller red-winged grasshopper is slim and black-bodied and may be hard to see at rest, as it hides in vegetation. Its large, bright red wings clearly stand out when it flies. With active curiosity and careful observation you will see many more types of insects during your visit to Big Bend National Park. An amazing display of beauty and diversity surrounds us, if we are willing to put aside our prejudices and explore the lives of the insects around us.

 

Lubber Grasshopper:

 

The Annual Grasshopper Invasion

April showers bring May flowers. They may also bring what locals refer to as "The Invasion of the Giant Grasshoppers." From mid-summer to early fall, the roads in the Big Bend area may be covered with large lumps that, on closer inspection, turn out to be huge grasshoppers. Desert shrubs may be so laden with these large insects that their branches bend under the excess weight. Entomologists have identified 115 species of grasshoppers and katydids in Big Bend National Park, but none attract as much attention as these "lubbers," which stand out due to their size, bright colors, and sheer abundance.

 

Lubber grasshoppers are about three inches in length. Their wide, heavy bodies are shiny black with yellow pinstripes, and you'll see the flash of their rose-red wings when they fly. Like all other grasshoppers, they have strong mandibles for chewing. They are often seen in great numbers in the foliage of desert plants like mesquites and acacias,where they devour enormous amounts of leaves. They also eat their own dead, which leads to the piles of dead grasshoppers on the roads: when these slow-moving grasshoppers are killed by traffic, other grasshoppers come out to eat them and are often hit, and then even more cannibals come out to feed on them.

 

As in other animals, the bright coloration on the lubber grasshoppers indicates that they are toxic. Small mammals have vomited violently and even died after eating them. Birds, too, have died after eating them. Lubber grasshoppers sometimes secrete a foamy spray containing irritating compounds from their thoracic, or mid-body, region.

 

In addition to being virtually inedible, lubber grasshoppers appear to be highly heat tolerant, perhaps more than most other insects. They are often seen walking on roads in the heat of summer afternoons, when the surface temperature on the asphalt measures over 135 degrees.

 

Pick up a lubber, and you'll hear loud hissing as it forces air out of its spiracles, or breathing holes. It may also spit "tobacco juice" when handled. This brown liquid consists of partially-digested food material along with semi-toxic compounds, and it stains skin and clothing.

 

Durable, inedible, heat tolerant, and fearsome—the only enemies that lubber grasshoppers seem to have are moving vehicles. Once they learn that asphalt is meant to be crossed, not loitered upon, they'll be ready to take over the world.

 

REPTILES

 

Big Bend's desert environment is a perfect place for reptiles! Thirty-one species of snakes, twenty-two species of lizards, and seven species of turtles have been found in Big Bend National Park. Remember that these animals, like all wildlife, are protected from harassment, killing, or collecting within the park.

 

Turtles:

 

There are only a few wet places in the park where turtles are found.  Though through the rainy season, it could be possible to find one out in the desert wandering between wet spots.  In the Rio Grande, the most common species would be the Big Bend slider.  This is a subspecies of the well-known Red-eared slider.  Also found along the river is the spiny softshell turtle, the yellow mud turtle, and in very small numbers, a new species found in 2005, the Rio Grande river cooter.  Though the Texas tortoise is on the park's checklist they are not found regularly enough in Big Bend to be considered resident.  One species that we hope to learn more about in Big Bend is the ornate box turtle once they were not considered resident though a few recent sightings have suggested the opposite.

 

Snakes:

Big Bend National Park is an amazing place to observe many different snakes.  There are 31 species known to exist in the park and three more snakes are listed as hypothetical.  Keep in mind that all wildlife in the park are protected from harming, handling, or otherwise being disturbed by visitors. 

 

The red racer, or western coachwhip, is the most often seen snake in the park, due to both its bright reddish-pink color and its habit of lying across roads, where it may stretch across an entire lane.

 

Bullsnakes are the largest snakes seen in the park, reaching over 6 feet in length and reaching several inches in diameter. Its heavy body, flat head, and patterning lead some people to mistake it for a rattlesnake. The bullsnake hisses and rattles its tail when threatened, and when it does this in dry leaves, the effect is very similar to that of a rattlesnake buzzing.

 

Hikers may find patchnose snakes in both the mountains and the desert. These slender snakes have a tan background color with two longitudinal dark brown stripes lining a central brown stripe. Look for the triangular "patchnose" scale on the snake's snout.

 

Garter snakes, both black-necked and checkered, are found around water, where they most commonly hunt for frogs and toads.

 

Rat snakes can be found often at dusk near the side of roads.  There are two species here Baird's and the Trans-Pecos which is more common and easily identified with its pattern of H marks running down its back.

 

After summer rains many more snakes will be active and we encourage visitors in the park to photograph snakes and report rarities or oddities to us from time to time.  Remember that you are not permitted to handle or disturb snakes in the park in anyway.  Current park regulations do not allow the use of artificial light to illuminate wildlife.  

 

Rattlesnakes:

 

Four species of rattlesnakes are found in the park. The western diamondback is the most common of these. Since some other rattlesnakes also have a diamond pattern, look for the pattern of same-sized alternating white and black rings on the snake's tail.

 

Black-tail rattlesnakes are common throughout the mountains and desert. They often have a green coloration, and the tail is solid black. Rock rattlesnakes rely upon protective coloration and seldom rattle unless really provoked. Within the park you may see two color phases: a grayish phase in the low desert, where white and gray limestone predominates; and a maroon phase in theChisosMountains, where the igneous rocks are more reddish-brown. Mojave rattlesnakes are the least often encountered, which is perhaps a good thing because their venom is the most toxic, affecting the nervous system. Mojave rattlers may have a greenish tint and have an alternating pattern of wide white bands and narrow black bands on the tail. Snake bites are rare inBig Bend, yet many visitors are concerned about encountering snakes.

 

To avoid being bitten by a snake, watch where you put your hands and feet, always carry a flashlight at night, and never disturb or pick up any snake. If you are bitten by a snake, remain calm, try to identify the snake that bit you, and get medical assistance as soon as possible. Keep in mind that physical exertion spreads the flow of venom through the body. Many hikers carry snake bite kits, which are available at most sporting goods stores.

 

Lizards:

 

Leapin Lizards!   Big Bend National Park is a great place to discover the diversity of many creatures like birds, snakes, and lizards. Big Bend is home to an amazing array of lizards! Twenty-two species to be exact.

 

Why are lizards important?  What is their role in this ecosystem?  Most of the lizards here, are found in the diet of many other creatures.  Lizards are the main prey item for roadrunners, one of Big Bend's most popular birds. They help regulate the populations of other animals here, particularly insects, by feeding upon them.

 

Did you know that lizards in Big Bend are active most the year-round? Lizards are ectotherms, or cold-blooded creatures, because of this they need to regulate their body temperatures. Any extreme (too hot or too cold) could mean certain death for these animals.  During the heat of the summer they are often hiding in burrows, while in the cold of the winter they are often burried below the ground surface (sometimes in burrows).

 

Visitors to Big Bend NP most frequently see the whiptails, earless, and spiny lizards. Often, lizards will be heard and not seen as they scurry through the vegetation off the side of a trail, though ones that are sighted are often fast and hide easily. The largest lizards in the park are the Collared (Crotaphytus) and Leopard (Gambelia) lizards which can measure over a foot! Both make their living off eating other lizards, insects, spiders, and small snakes. 

 

There are other big lizards here though they are small compared to the monitors or komodo dragons. The largest Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) ever recorded was found here in Big Bend NP. Texas horned lizards are not very abundant in Big Bend NP, in the few places where they are located they are not in very big numbers. However, there is no evidence yet, that would suggest that this is abnormal. It is more likely that Big Bend NP may not have the proper type of habitat necessary for these lizards. The main and often only, food item for the Texas horned lizard is the harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex) which feeds mostly on grass seed.  It is possible, if at one time there were larger grasslands in Big Bend, there may have been a larger harvester ant population and thus a greater number of Texas horned lizards.  

 

MAMMALS

 

Many visitors would be surprised to find out that 75 species of mammals inhabit the deserts and mountains of Big Bend National Park. Living in an area with high temperatures and low rainfall forces many animals to live extremely cautious lifestyles. Many leave their burrows only under cover of night. Others may forage during the cool of early the early morning. Larger mammals include whitetail and mule deer, coyote, mountain lion, and black bear. The snuffling you hear around your campsite at night may be a gray fox or a band of hungry javelina. Bats make up the largest portion of the park's mammal species. 20 different species have been observed here, including the endangered Mexican Long-nosed Bat, which has been found nowhere else in the entire United States.

 

Javalinas:

 

The collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu), commonly known as the javelina, is found as far south as Argentina and as far north as Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Collared peccaries are in the even-toed, hoofed mammal order of Artiodactyla. Javelinas are often called pigs but they really are not. They are in different family than pigs. There are several differences between the two animals

 

Javelinas thrive in a variety of habitats and are able to adapt easily to different areas in their territory. The javelina is a herbivore (plant eater) and frugivore (fruit eater). They eat wide variety of fruits, tubers, rhizomes, bulbs, acorns, grass, green shoots of annuals, stems of prickly pears, lupines, mesquite beans, and lechuguilla. They are also opportunistic and take animal matter as food when it is easily available or accidentally ingest it while foraging for other things. Succulent prickly pear pads make it possible for the javelina to survive until rainfall brings many new annual food plants and water sources. Javelina will drink when water is available, but it is not essential if succulents are available. 

 

The collared peccary can breed any month of the year, but most births occur in May, June, or July, after a five-month gestation period. This may be to correspond with the summer rainy season. They first breed at about one year of age and only death or disease ends the ability to breed and bear young. Collared peccaries live in groups, but do not form long-term pair bonds. The female gives birth standing up and nurses the young for two months. The average litter size is two, but occasionally is as high as five. By six weeks of age the young are eating solid food like their mother. By forty weeks the young are full-grown. There is typically a 50% or higher mortality rate for the young. 

 

Coyotes, bobcats, black bears, and mountain lions prey upon javelinas. On average they live 7.5 years in the wild. Herd size ranges from five to twenty seven animals, with an average of fourteen per herd in Big Bend National Park.

 

A typical day for a javelina in Big Bend begins at daylight when the herd gets up from the bedding site and feeds until mid-morning. Food will include lechuguilla, roots, prickly pear, seeds of woody plants, fruits, and forbs when available. The herd feeds by spreading out in a loosely knit group. As they day heats up the javelina seek shelter in cooler canyons, caves, and areas of dense shrub. They will feed again in late afternoon until dark. Feeding time increases in cooler months and resting time increases in the summer. Javelina may even feed at night during the hottest months. After feeding, the herd will bed down under rocky overhangs, in caves, and in shallow depressions with heavy brush cover. They will huddle together in a group for warmth and protection when bedding down.  

 

Javelina hides were shipped east and to Europe for gloves and hairbrushes in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The hides were used as barter in many trading posts along the U.S.-Mexico border. Since the 1940's the javelina has been considered a sporting game animal in Texas. It provides a source of income for landowners and the State of Texas for the hunter's fee. In Big Bend National Park the javelina is protected. It is often seen in the campgrounds feeding and has been known to raid coolers and picnic tables when they are left unattended. The javelina is common in Big Bend and a welcome site to many visitors.

 

Mountain Lions:

 

If Big Bend had a symbol, it might well be the mountain lion—the embodiment of freedom and wildness. Solitary and secretive, this mighty creature is the unquestioned lord of its natural world. As one of Big Bend's top predators, Felis concolor—"cat all of one color"—is vital in maintaining the park's biological diversity. In the delicate habitats of the Chihuahuan Desert, mountain lions help balance herbivores (animals that eat plants) and vegetation. Research shows that cats help keep deer and javelina within the limits of their food resources. Without lions, the complex network of life in Big Bend would certainly be changed.

 

Encountering a mountain lion, however, can lead to conflicts in maintaining the balance between natural processes and visitor enjoyment and safety. Since the 1950s, there have been more than 2,700 sightings of mountain lions by visitors. Each year, over 150 lion sightings are reported by park visitors. While over 90 percent of these sightings were along park roadways, encounters along trails have also occurred. Since 1984, four lion and human encounters have resulted in attacks on people. In both cases, those attacked recovered from their injuries and the aggressive lions were killed, preventing them from playing out their important natural roles. The more we know about lions, and the less we seek an encounter, the better able we will be to make life easier for them and for us.

 

How much do you really know about this powerful and wild cat? Mountain lions live throughout the park, including the Chisos Mountains where they prefer to use trails. Your chances of encountering an aggressive lion are remote. What can you do to minimize the consequences of an encounter? Avoid hiking alone or at dusk or dawn. Watch children closely; never let them run ahead of you.

 

Like all predators, the mountain lion's role is a part of the health and welfare of the entire ecosystem. Research and further human understanding of the cat's habits pave the way for conservation efforts in its behalf. As we discover more about the lion, we fear it less and appreciate it more. For many visitors, just seeing a track—or just knowing lions are out there—will be reward enough.

 

Jackrabbits:

 

The black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) is found throughout the western United States in the desert, open plains, and foothills.  The jackrabbit is actually not a rabbit, but a hare. Hares live in open areas and rely on running in a zigzag pattern to escape their predators. Hares are also precocial, meaning they are born with hair and with their eyes open. They can run and hop shortly after birth.  Rabbits, on the other hand, move slower, dig burrows, and scamper into their homes when threatened. Rabbits are altricial, or born hairless, blind, and helpless. The desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) is the common rabbit of Big Bend.

 

The black-tailed jackrabbit weighs between four and eight pounds. The female doe is larger than the male buck. Their total length is between 18 and 26 inches. The tail has a black stripe that runs along the top onto the rump (hence the name) and is 2" to 4 1/2" long.  The characteristic large ears are 4-7" long and are whitish inside and out except for the black tips. There is a light colored ring around the eye. The iris of their eyes is yellow ochre with black pupils. The eyes are on the sides of the head, which enables jackrabbits to see in front, to the side, and behind them. Their eyes are used more to pick up motion than to focus on an object. The jackrabbit has excellent hearing and sense of smell. Their ears and nose are in constant motion to analyze their environment for sounds and smells.

 

Hares and rabbits are perhaps nature's ideal prey. Coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, hawks, eagles, owls, and snakes will all eat them. The hare's and rabbit's sharp senses, effective camouflage, and fast running speeds are their only protection. The jackrabbit can hop 5'-10' at a time, and up to 20' when panicked. They can achieve speeds of up to 40 mph. When at a moderate run, every four to five leaps are exceptionally high to see their surroundings or predators. The jackrabbit runs with its ears flat and tail between its haunches. It will leap over objects rather than run around them. The fast, erratic leaps, bounds, and sprints are effective against predators, but they have poor endurance and often end up as some animal's dinner.

 

The amazing reproductive rate of hares and rabbits is an adaptation to being preyed upon by so many carnivores. Black-tailed jackrabbits will have up to six litters each year with as many as eight young in each litter, although two to four is more common.  After a gestation period of 41-47 days, the female will give birth in a grassy hollow or shallow depression scratched into the ground. There is no nest. Within two weeks the young can forage for themselves, and after one month they are living on their own. By eight months of age they are having their own young. 

 

The black-tailed jackrabbit is a herbivore, eating only vegetation like grasses, mesquite and cacti. To help digest this tough vegetation, the jackrabbit's appendix serves as a pre-digesting chamber to start breaking down these food sources before they reach the stomach. When feeding, the jackrabbit leaves neatly clipped diagonal cuts on plant stalks. They have a double row of upper incisors with small, secondary teeth located directly behind the main incisors. These teeth never stop growing, so the hare must constantly gnaw on vegetation to wear them down. Jackrabbits forage for food early in the mornings and late in the evenings, dozing in the shade during the day in shallow depressions. They deposit their scat wherever they happen to be. Two types of droppings are produced. The first is a soft, moist, mucous-coated sphere. The jackrabbit eats these droppings, as they are high in protein and certain B vitamins that are formed by bacteria in the intestines. After passing through the digestive system again, the waste products are deposited onto the ground as a dry dropping.  The scat is composed of fibrous, compacted plant material. 

 

Black-tailed jackrabbits are found throughout Big Bend National Park and are most common below 5000'. They are often nocturnal and can commonly be seen along the roadsides on summer nights. Use caution at all times when driving park roads because the jackrabbits seem to have kamikaze tendencies!

 

Coyote:

The coyote, Canis latrans, is a native of the grasslands, but is now found coast to coast in the United States. It lives in the grasslands, deserts, temperate forests, woodlands, swamps, sub-alpine areas, and even in major cities. Despite the billions of dollars spent on predator control projects throughout the U.S., the coyote is more abundant than ever. The coyote has filled the void left by the disappearance of the wolf.  

 

The reputation of the coyote as a predator of big game and livestock is exaggerated. Over half of a coyote's diet are rodents like gophers, squirrels, and mice. They also eat rabbits, hares, grasshoppers, and other insects, frogs, salamanders, snakes, fish, birds, and eggs. Road kill, carrion, and injured animals are also eaten. Berries, nuts, and grasses are sometimes consumed. A coyote will cache or store food. Most of the time a coyote is a lone hunter. Using its keen senses of hearing, sight, and smell, the coyote locates its prey. The coyote will immobilize its prey, with its sharp teeth, grasping it by the throat and suffocating it by tooth punctures around the throat.  A coyote may combine hunting efforts with one or two others, running in relays to tire the prey or waiting in ambush while the other chase the quarry towards it. 

 

The coyote or song dog is known in the west for its howls and high pitched yipping. Coyotes don't bay at the moon just to enjoy themselves. The barks, yaps, yips, growls, and howls are a means of communication to help keep the band together. Coyotes mate for life.  Mating usually occurs between January and March. After a gestation period of about two months, a litter of two to twelve pups are born. Five or six pups are average. A typical den is five to thirty feet long with a nesting chamber. It can be dugout in a hillside, in a cave, under a log, in a culvert, or be an old fox den. Regardless of where the den is, it will be well hidden and underground. If the den is discovered or disturbed, the coyote will change dens. The male helps raise the pups by hunting for their food. Young from a previous litter may help raise the new litter. This helps increase the new litter's survival rate and teaches the helpers about raising pups.  The pups will leave the den at about one-month old to play, learn, and grow. One adult will be with the pups at all times. They are weaned by the summer's end. Parents will then carry food in their stomach and disgorge a partially digested meal for the pups outside the den. They begin to teach the pups how to hunt and by late fall they can survive on their own. Coyotes survive in the wild an average of six to eight years. 

 

Coyotes tend to travel well-established paths. Their home range is 40 to 100 square miles. Scat is left at intersections as a sign of their territory. Tracks show four toes per foot with claws. The hind foot is slightly smaller than the front. Coyotes can leap up to 14 feet. They easily run up to 30 mph and can reach 40 mph in a sprint.  Coyotes run with their tails down (wolves run with their tails horizontal and domestic dogs with their tails up). Coyotes are half the size of wolves, standing two feet high at the shoulder and four to five feet long from the nose to the tip of the tail. They weigh 30 to 70 pounds, and the female is smaller than the male.  Their fur is gray to red gray with light under parts. The long legs show a dark vertical line on the lower forelegs. The bushy tail has a black tip and the ears are prominent. The snout is slender and pointed.

 

No matter what name Canis latrans is called - coyote, song dog, God's dog, prairie wolf, brush wolf, trickster- it is a symbol of the wild and free, a symbol of adaptability. It has survived where other carnivores have not and provides vital population control of rodents and other small mammals.  It serves as "the garbage man" cleaning up carrion and road kill. The mournful howls and excited yips are a sound many treasure when heard in the Big Bend.

 

Black Bears:

 

Black Bears Return!

One day in the 1980s, a black bear from the Sierra del Carmen in Northern Mexico started a journey. She descended from the mountains, walked through miles of desert, swam across the Rio Grande, and traversed more desert to reach the forested slopes of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. She may have led offspring to the Chisos, and probably encountered a wandering male already using the park's mountain range. How they came and why they came, we may never know. But the return of bears to the park is a remarkable event. It is a success story, and a story of hope for the future.

 

The Past

In the early 1900s, black bears (Ursus americanus) were common in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. Naturalist Vernon Bailey in 1901 described bears as being "... common in the upper canyons of the Chisos Mountains, where fresh tracks of old and young were frequently seen and where there was an abundance of old 'sign' and turned over stones." Bears continued to be common in the Chisos Mountains through the 1930s.

 

By the time the park was established in 1944, however, there were virtually no resident bears in the park. Shooting and trapping by ranchers, federal predator control agents, and recreational hunters, and loss of habitat due to settlement and development contributed to their decline. Individual bears occasionally wandered in and out of the park from Mexico, but only scattered sightings were reported from the 1940s through the 1980s. In 1969, and again in 1978, female bears with cubs were seen in the Chisos Mountains. Still, bears were extremely rare in the park.

 

The Reappearance

The late 1980s brought an amazing turn of events. Visitors began seeing bears in increasing numbers. In 1988, a visitor photographed a female with three young cubs in the Chisos Mountains. On 27 occasions, visitors reported seeing bears that year, more evidence of a resident black bear population. Observations increased in the early 1990s. In 1996, 572 observations were recorded. In 1999 there were 343 sightings of black bears in the park. Once a large animal is eliminated from its natural range, it is rare for it to return on its own. Often, only human intervention can bring back what humans caused to disappear.

 

The recolonization of black bears in Big Bend is a remarkable natural event. Researchers do not know exactly why the bears returned, but it is due in part to the preservation and restoration of habitat in the park.