Contrary to what most people might assume, the desert habitat of Arches National Park is teeming with animal life. The catch is that lots of species, particularly mammals, lay low to avoid the heat during the day. Still, it is possible to spot a glimpse of some of Arches’ many native critters — you just need to know when and where to look.
Like all cold-blooded animals, the collared lizard depends on its environment to regulate its body temperature. So while many animals that live in Arches National Park won’t show themselves during the day, you can count on seeing it and other lizards basking in the sun. The collared lizard is named for a dark band around its neck, but wildlife spotters will definitely notice its brilliant colors, teal with bright yellow markings. Catch it on the hunt for insects and small vertebrates — you might even see it running on its hind legs!
Desert Bighorn Sheep
As its name suggests, desert bighorn sheep are specially adapted for life in arid regions. A distinct subspecies, they have smaller bodies, longer legs and thinner coats than their mountain-dwelling cousins. They can also go for days without water. These sheep were commonly featured in Native American pictographs throughout the southwest, a testament to their importance to those societies.
Although once common and quite numerous, desert bighorn numbers dwindled by the end of the 19th century, due to hunting and diseases borne by domesticated sheep introduced by ranchers. The National Park Service reintroduced desert bighorn sheep to Arches and other parks in Utah starting in the 1980s. Researchers now estimate a statewide population of 3,000. You can see desert bighorn sheep along Highway 191 south of the Arches visitor center.
The desert favors small mammals like rodents, who require little water and can readily find shelter from the intense elements. There are eleven species of mice and rats in Arches National Park, but perhaps none better adapted to desert life than the kangaroo rat. This rodent, which gets its name because it hops around on its hind legs like a kangaroo, lives in a complex burrow system underneath the loose desert soil. Each den within the burrow serves a specialized purpose, from food storage to sleeping. To trap moisture in the burrow, kangaroo rats plug the entrances with loose dirt during the day and stay underground. While this means that they’re not too common during hot days, you’ll likely be able to tell they’ve been around by the tracks that the rats leave in the soil.