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Ecology of Canyonlands National Park

Learn about the ecology of Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is home to a vast array of flora and fauna, much of which is indigenous to the region. In the hot, dry conditions that pervade the desert environment in and around Canyonlands, desert-adapted organisms thrive. Such plants and animals are fascinating to observe and can be seen in every corner of the park! 


Conditions in Canyonlands are hostile to life: the hot, dry days and extremely cold nights make it difficult for plants to grow and thrive. Those that do grow in the park have adapted and innovated to be able to escape, resist, or evade drought conditions. The USGS studies long-term changes in vegetation in and around Canyonlands National Park. 

The plants that can be found across Canyonlands vary greatly, because the unique adaptations that each plant must develop in order to survive in the desert conditions. Cacti are a famous plant well-adapted to life in the desert, and are also a source of nutrients for desert rodents and mammals. Some desert plants, known as drought escapers, only grow when water is available. Some adaptations that enable this include seeds that lie dormant during periods without water. Many wildflowers are drought escapers; they sprout after seasonal rains. Drought resistors can tolerate drought conditions. They often have small, spiny leaves to help them survive harsh solar radiation, are able to shed their leaves to reduce their need for precious water, and have extensive root systems so that they can reach water far away or deep underground. Cacti, yucca, and mosses are examples of drought resistors. Drought evaders avoid drought altogether, and only grow where water is present. They may be found near oases in the desert, such as desert springs, river corridors, ephemeral pools, or shaded alcoves. Many trees, such as cottonwoods and willows, require a significant amount of water to survive and grow only where their roots can easily reach the water table.

Lichens are a notable feature of the landscape across Canyonlands. Found attached to rocks across the park, lichens are formed when fungi and algae partner together in a symbiotic, or closely associated, relationship. Lichens have advanced adaptations which allow them to survive the extreme temperature changes. They grow extremely slowly, can survive for thousands of years, and contribute valuable organic material to the soil.

Lichens, such as those pictured above, often exhibit unique coloring which allows them to stand out from the rocks
Lichens, such as those pictured above, often exhibit unique coloring which allows them to stand out from the rocks to which they are attached. In this case, they are attached to light sandstone

Lichens are often found growing in biological crusts atop the soil alongside moss, microfungi, bacteria, and green algae. Biological soil crusts are slow-growing, living crusts that cover many desert soils. Immature biological crusts usually match the color of the surrounding soil, but mature crust can be identified by its bumpy texture and dark color. Beware of biological soil crust during your time in Canyonlands, they are extremely fragile and take many years to grow. Staying on designated trails, away from the crust, is the best way to protect them. These crusts control erosion and help to keep moisture intact within in the desert soil.

Dark biological crusts are common the desert Southwest and are an important part of the ecosystem.
Dark biological crusts are common the desert Southwest and are an important part of the ecosystem.

Grasses are a less fragile form of plant life which occur throughout the park wherever is soil layered several feet thick. Bunch grasses occur in clumps over broad areas, reducing competition for resources between each clump. Sod-forming grasses look like the grass that might grow in a backyard, and they are an important source of nutrients for sheep and deer.

Vegetation growing in Canyonlands does not just face temperature and drought-related challenges, it also must overcome wind erosion. Even if fertile soil is able to accumulate in the desert, winds may blow it away, stripping valuable topsoil from the surface of the land and burying or uprooting what vegetation exists there.


Animal life in Canyonlands displays remarkable propensity for survival. Extreme conditions exist in ephemeral pools, pools of water in sandstone basins where rainwater and sediment collect in potholes. These pools can reach extremely high temperatures during summer and drop below freezing in winter, necessitating that the organisms living inside them be able to adapt to various conditions. Microscopic invertebrates live in these pools, and organisms from outside them- including insects, birds, and mammals- come to these pools to drink. Organisms that can survive under such extreme conditions are important to scientists, as they can be studied for greater insight into their adaptations.

Canyonlands is home to roughly fifty species of mammal, though some are more commonly seen than others. Many nocturnal animals seek shelter during the daytime from extreme summer heat. During the day, animals that can be found outside tend to be small. Small mammals require less food and water to survive, which is a useful adaptation to life in Canyonlands’ hot desert environment. This means that rodents are abundant, including mice, rats, and beavers. Tracks and droppings will indicate their presence, and beaver dams are burrowed into banks along the Colorado and Green rivers.

Even if these animals are sleeping during your visit to Canyonlands, keep an eye out for their tracks, scat, and other signs of their presence.

A kangaroo rat, one example of a species adapted to Canyonlands’ harsh climate.
A kangaroo rat, one example of a species adapted to Canyonlands’ harsh climate.

Small rodents such as kangaroo rats are herbivores, and their bodies produce water by metabolizing food. They stay in burrows to beat the heat, and during the hottest daylight hours, they may cover the opening with dirt or debris for protection from the high temperatures.

Mammals who are too large to escape the heat in cool underground burrows may travel vast distances to find food and water. This includes carnivores such as mountain lions, as well as herbivores and omnivores such as mule deer and bighorn sheep. They may migrate to cooler areas or higher ground during peak temperatures in summer.

Black bears have an interesting pattern of movement through Canyonlands, primarily residing in nearby higher-elevation mountains and descending to lower ground to follow rivers and streams through Canyonlands in late spring and early autumn to feed on plants such as prickly pear, cacti, and hackleberry trees.

Snakes, lizards and tortoises are abundant in Canyonlands National Park and are a critical part of the food chain. They are highly adapted to the desert; because they are cold-blooded and their temperature matches that of the environment around them. Despite the dry climate, amphibians do inhabit Canyonlands. Frogs, toads, and one species of salamander can be found within the park.

Throughout Canyonlands, several species of birds can be observed swooping over canyons at high altitude to find their next meal. Some birds within the park’s borders are permanent residents while others migrate through the park seasonally. Much of this diversity is due to the rivers which bisect Canyonlands and provide a source of food and water to the birds flying high above. Herons can hunt in these rivers, while nearby grasslands act as a habitat for jays, warblers, titmice, ravens, and more.