Most people imagine the desert as a biome devoid of life, inhabited by dust and rock. In fact, deserts can contain an array of life, each adapted to survive the challenges posed by this ecosystem. Deserts cover 25 percent of the earth, according to National Geographic, and the life they contain feels the impacts of global warming, overgrazing and mining for oil, gas and gold. Desert plants create a food source for organisms higher on the food web, so their disappearance poses a threat to all desert life.
The U.S. Forest Service identifies the Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) as a potential endangered species. One variety of this evergreen tree exists in a single grove, causing environmentalists to fear that it could be wiped out by wildfire. A native of the southwestern United States, the Arizona cypress typically grows along streams at the bottoms of canyons or mountainsides, where it can grow at elevations up to 8,000 feet above sea level. The tree's ability to withstand both dry and salty soil allows it to adapt well to desert life.
Ash Meadow Milkvetch
The Endangered Species Act lists the ash meadow milkvetch (Astragalus phoenix) as a threatened species. Found only in the state of Nevada, the ash meadow milkvetch belongs to the pea family, where it plays an essential role in the desert ecosystem. Legume plants like peas have the unique ability to "fix" atmospheric nitrogen, turning it into a form of nitrogen usable by plants and soil microorganisms. According to National Geographic, preserving desert ecosystems requires legumes, which help to restore soil fertility, creating conditions where other plants can grow.
The fishhook cactus (Ancistrocactus tobuschii) appears on the Endangered Species Act list as endangered. Land development and collection by cactus enthusiasts threaten its existence in Texas, the only state where you can find the fishhook cactus. The cactus is named for the hooked ends on its spines that resemble fishhooks, and it produces yellow flowers in the spring. It lives primarily in limestone arroyos, in thin, well-drained soil. Only 33 populations of the cactus remain, according to the Center for Plant Conservation.
Nevada considers the bearpoppy (Arctomecon californica) a critically endangered species in the state. Its populations diminished following rapid development in the Las Vegas area. The bright yellow flower can be found in Nevada and Arizona, including parts of the Grand Canyon. Although 44 percent of bearpoppy populations fall under federal management and receive protection from development and other threats, making the species one unlikely to go extinct in the short-term, the Nevada Natural Heritage Program points out that threats to the unprotected populations could reduce genetic diversity and risk eventual extinction.
- National Geographic: Desert Threats
- U.S. Forest Service: Cupressus Arizonica
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Astragalus phoenix Barneby
- Center for Plant Conservation: Ancistrocactus tobuschii
- Nevada Natural Heritage Program: Current Knowledge and Conservation Status of Arctomecon californica Torrey & Frémont (Papaveraceae), the Las Vegas Bearpoppy
- Photo Credit Paul Edmondson/Photodisc/Getty Images