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Wildlife that can take the heat

Special features allow the animals of Death Valley to thrive in the hot, dry desert.

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Like the kangaroo rat, the kit fox gets the moisture it needs from what it eats. It also spends a lot of time underground. It lives in a den year-round and spends the hot days there cooling off. It comes to the surface at night to look for food.

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"Kit foxes are incredibly curious," Mr. Cornett says. "They come into campgrounds and campsites all the time."


The sidewinder is the most common rattlesnake in Death Valley. It's called a "sidewinder" because of the way it moves. "It's almost a rolling motion," says Bill Hayes, a biology professor at Loma Linda University in California. "It kind of rolls a portion of its body sideways and forward at the same time."

Sidewinders take advantage of other animals to survive. They can't dig burrows, but they find burrows that kangaroo rats have made and occupy them, forcing the rats to dig new holes. When it's hot, they stay in the burrows or buried in sand all day and come out at night. And like many other animals in Death Valley, they don't need to drink water to survive. They get the water they need from the food they eat, such as lizards and rodents.


Roadrunners can fly if they need to, but it's more common to see them run. They're active during the day, although they'll head for the shade during the hottest parts of summer days.

They get most of their moisture from eating insects and small animals, including rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas.

During cold desert nights, roadrunners allow their body temperatures to drop to conserve energy. In the morning, they find a sunny spot and fluff their feathers to expose dark skin that can absorb the sun's heat and warm them up.

"The change between night and day is huge," Mr. Siminski says. "If it's getting up to 100 [degrees F.] during the day, it could be 50 [degrees F.] at night."

Desert tortoise

The desert tortoise lives in the higher elevations of Death Valley. The valley floor is too hot and dry for it to find food.

Even at the higher elevations, the tortoise spends 95 percent of its life underground, escaping from the extremes of heat and cold, says Kristin Berry, a research scientist in ecology and wildlife for the US Geological Survey. She studies the desert tortoise.

Desert tortoises come out of their burrows, caves, or rock shelters when it's time to mate, when food is available, or when it rains.

They eat mostly wildflowers and other plants. Their bladders act like canteens, storing water during drier seasons. When it rains, they find water to drink and fill up their bladders.

"If it rains, they come out, and they take every opportunity they possibly can to drink," Dr. Berry said, although they don't come out often during their winter hibernation period.