It is all in the name. Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Except it isn’t a museum. It is more like a zoo, but it isn’t really a zoo, it is a botanical garden with a zoo. It has some history like a museum but isn’t focused on history. It was unlike a museum in so many ways. First of all, it was outside and it was living. Beyond any other description, I guess the name is as good as any. Beyond the name the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum is a wonderful place that has put the many parts of the Sonoran Desert all in on one (hundred-acre) small hillside just outside of Tuscon.
At the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, there is a desert botanical garden full of all the plants found across the biggest desert in North America. There is also a zoo filled with many of the animals of the Sonoran Desert. It also has an aquarium filled with many of the fish found in and near the Sonoran Desert. It includes a cave that is connected to a mining exhibit that is found in the Sonoran Desert. It is also a nature reserve with two miles of walking trails.
The Sonoran Desert
The Sonoran Desert includes most of Baja California, a huge part of the southern California Desert including Palm Springs, nearly half of Arizona, and is located just south of the Mojave Desert. The Sonoran Desert differs from the Mohave Desert based on water. The Sonoran Desert has two rainy seasons each year. The winter is cool and has rainfall and in late summer they have what they call the monsoon season.
Monsoon season isn’t like monsoon season in Southeast Asia. Rain via thunderstorms is a possibility and not infrequent. Earlier in the summer, the Sonoran Desert is hot and dry. In the Mojave Desert, the winters are colder and they only occasionally get thunderstorms in the summer.
Phoenix and Tucson are the largest metropolitan areas in the Sonoran Desert. Las Vegas is the largest metropolitan area in the Mojave Desert. The most notable “tree” in the Sonoran Desert is the Saguaro and the most notable tree in the Mojave Desert is the Joshua Tree.
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
We have seen the Desert Big Horn Sheep in the wild in the Mojave Desert, but know that they are in both deserts. Really Desert Big Horn Sheep, just like most of the big animals, are rare in the Sonoran Desert. They are there, but nothing large is found in abundance. There just isn’t enough food to go around. The lack of water makes for a hard life. The large animals don’t get by without a struggle.
What the Sonoran Desert has, more than anything is an abundance of drought-tolerant plants and small animals. Nearly every plant in the Sonoran Desert has the ability to defend itself from any attack with a huge number of spines. These needle-like spikes keep people and large animals to maintain a distance.
Even the Ocotillo has an abundance of needles to protect it from being eaten.
There is water in the desert, but most of it is inside the plants and well below ground level. The surface animals get most of their water from the plants. Running or standing water is extremely rare. One of the animals that are very adapted to getting water from plants is the desert tortoise. A real treat for the tortoise is the prickly pear cactus.
As a young Boy Scout, several times I tried to eat a prickly pear cactus. I was never successful. I knew that you needed to get past the spines and down to the meat, which I thought would be like the interior of a fruit. Once I got the obvious spines off and skinned the cactus I still seemed to find invisible spines in the meat. Perhaps I wasn’t hungry enough, but for me, it didn’t work.
In the more temperate (and wetter) seasons it seems that the desert blooms with color. Some of the plants get flowers and others just change color. In the summer, it is just hot and brown. Or at least I think it is hot and brown. My time outside is limited because it is too hot.
The following picture is of the same plant that makes the red color in the previous picture. I am not sure about the name of this plant. What I can tell you is that I didn’t wade through all the things that would have surely made me a pin cushion to take the following picture.
The next picture isn’t the same plant but it too has turned red color. In this area, we noted a few visiting hummingbirds. I don’t know if they were able to get anything to eat from this plant or just went away disappointed.
At the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum they have a few large animals on display. In the area called Cat Canyon, they have a large mountain lion. In the picture below, the mountain lion seems content to lay on a rock in the sunshine. The mountain lion is also known as a cougar and alternately as a puma.
Also in Cat Canyon, they had a smaller lynx. It was very difficult to find in the exhibit.
Near Cat Canyon, there was also an exhibit of coyotes and javelina. It was about this time that I started to suspect that the very natural enclosures for the animals were not just a great place for these animals to live but rather that they were cleverly crafted as zoo enclosures. Obviously, you can’t keep the deer or Big Horn Sheep in the same enclosure as the big cats. What became obvious in the Cat Canyon was that the rocks were all constructed using cement. This carefully created cement enclosure was applied to both the deer and the Big Horn Sheep.
A real limestone cave?
One of the first exhibits that we encountered was a combination of a mine shaft that was connected to a seventy-five-foot-long limestone cavern. What luck putting the museum at the very location that had a limestone cavern. The cavern was so convincing that I didn’t suspect that this was crafted from the same cement as the outdoor structures. What gave it away as being created by an artist, rather than being natural was that it was too pristine. Since I knew the museum was about seventy years old and since this cavern, so close to the surface had to be at a well-known location, then how could it be this pristine?
The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum was carefully crafted to look just like the Sonoran Desert and the places that are found in the Sonoran Desert. Overall the museum, which wasn’t a museum or a zoo was very impressive. I found the entire journey, wandering through the different exhibits delightful.
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