Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

Flora & Fauna

Death Valley—one of the hottest and driest places in North America—is surprisingly home to an abundance of uniquely adapted life forms. A total of 1,042 plant species, 51 species of native mammals, 346 types of birds, 36 classifications of reptiles, six types of fish and five species of amphibians have all managed to thrive in this extreme climate.


As logic would suggest, most of the plant and animal life in Death Valley is found near the limited sources of water. The park's largest creature is the big-horn sheep. These prized and elusive sheep spend most of their time in the secluded upper reaches of the park's rugged mountain ranges, finding toeholds and perches on rock faces where there appear to be none. To protect the bighorns, the National Park Service has removed approximately 6,000 burros from the park in recent years. Other wild animals in Death Valley include deer, mountain lion, bobcat, coyote and fox. Keep your eyes open for the curious kit fox—these tiny animals have been known to nose their way right into backcountry campgrounds.

The dunes and fans of Death Valley are home to a variety of small game, such as rabbits, rodents, lizards and birds. One of these species, the humble kangaroo rat, manages to eek out a living without drinking a single drop of liquid water. All the water they need to survive can be metabolized within their bodies from the dry seeds they eat.

The 36 species of reptiles in Death Valley include chuckwallas, iguanas and rattlesnakes. Reptiles are ectothermic (cold-blooded) animals that absorb heat from their environment.

Endothermic (warm-blooded) animals metabolize body heat right from their food. Since deserts have plenty of heat, but little food, ectothermic species tend to fare particularly well.

Rattlesnakes should inspire caution, but not the intense fear and loathing they often get. With a few precautions—and a bit of common sense—you can safely hike and camp in areas where rattlesnakes are common. 

General Snake Bite Prevention Tips:

• Always wear shoes or boots. Boots and long pants can provide skin with a great deal of protection. 

• Use a flashlight at night to avoid stepping on any snakes. 

• Be cautious when approaching rocks, bushes or other objects where a snake may have sought out shade. Avoid old mining tunnels, a favorite place for rattlesnakes in Death Valley National Park.

• Set up your campsite in an open area. 

• Stay on trails; avoid walking in heavy underbrush. 

If you do encounter a rattlesnake:

• Stay calm and try to locate the snake's position, then move away quickly.

• Back away from the snake, giving it plenty of room. Rattlesnakes can only strike a distance equal to half of their own length. 

• Do not try to kill or move the snake. Seventy-five percent of snake bites occur when people try to capture or kill snakes. 

If you are bitten by a rattlesnake:

• Stay calm. Of 8,000 people who receive venomous bites in the United States, only nine to 15 die, according to FDA figures. Furthermore, 25 percent of adult rattlesnake bites are dry, with no venom injected. 

• Wash the bite with clean water and soap. 

• Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart. 

• If the bite is on the hand or arm remove any rings, watches or tight clothing. 

• Seek immediate medical attention.

The one-inch pupfish, that lives in the pools of Salt Creek, is ectothermic. These minnow-like fish cannot escape the high temperatures of the solar-heated salty pools that they live in, and are more evolved to be among the most heat-tolerant of all fishes. Some species even live in warm springs. They have been known to survive in water temperatures of 112°F. During the winter, when the water is cold, the fish lie dormant in the bottom of the mud. High levels of saline also threaten these species, however, pupfish can survive in water three times saltier than sea water by excreting excess salts through their kidneys and gills.


If you were to travel from briny Badwater Basin to the tip of Telescope Peak, you would cross four distinct ecological zones, each determined by climate and elevation. At Furnace Creek on the valley floor, precipitation averages a mere 1.90 inches per year, while the highest peaks receive about 15 inches annually. 

The Lower Sonoran, which covers the lowest 4,000 feet, is dominated by desert holly and creosote bush that grow in gravelly alluvial fans. The Upper Sonoran extends to an elevation of 8,500 feet and consists of sagebrush, other desert shrubs, and culminates with pinyon pine and juniper. Pinyon pine and juniper give way to sierra juniper and mountain mahogany in the Transition zone. The Sub-Alpine zone begins at an elevation of 9,000 feet where limber and bristlecone dominate. Differences in vegetation are primarily due to the precipitation gradient. 

Death Valley's plants supply themselves with water in one of two ways. Xerophytes generally have short roots and depend on ephemeral water that is above the water table; as a result, these plants are able to survive periods of protracted drought. Phreatophytes have longer roots and tap a perennial water source from the top of the underground saturated zone. Desert holly is a xerophyte and the most drought-resistant plant in Death Valley. It grows on the hottest, driest and saltiest parts of the gravel fans where the ground is too dry and salty even for creosote bush—another xerophyte and the most common plant in the Lower Sonoran zone. Desert holly, which tolerates salt, is more abundant on the east side of Death Valley due to the dry, saline fans that are found there. Pickleweed, a curious sprawling succulent shrub, is a phreatophyte that is extremely salt- tolerant and grows near the edge of the salt flats. Other phreatophytes common in Death Valley include salt grass, arrowweed and honey mesquite.