What Animal Eats Cactus in the Deserts?

Have you heard of people cooking cacti? No kidding, you will see it featured in a salad or taco in New Mexico. You must wonder if animals can eat it too.

Imagining animals feeding on the spiny plant feels outrageous.

However, you will soon learn more about how different birds, desert rodents, deer, Javelinas, coyotes, gophers, bats, goats, and more eat cacti to survive.

Why Do Animals Eat Cacti?

Necessity is the mother of invention, or in this case, evolution. Animals started out in the ocean. Slowly across millennia, they evolved to live on fertile land close to water bodies. Then finally, some members of the animal kingdom evolved to survive on the coldest ice caps, steepest mountains, or driest lands.

To thrive in an environment, animals use whatever resources are at their disposal. That is why, despite the prickly spines of the cactus, it became a staple source of water and food for many desert-dwelling animals.

Cactus isn’t a last resort for animals, either. For some, it is their first choice, eaten every day.

What Animals Eat Cactus in the Deserts?

More animals than you think to favor and rely on this succulent desert plant to survive. Even in the desert, food chains follow the same rule as everywhere else.

Plant life is the most abundant, and the desert is filled with cacti. This relatively abundant plant life gets feasted on by herbivores and omnivores. To keep their population in check, predators eat them.

Given that knowledge, you can expect this list to be filled with animals you normally expect to see eating plants.

If you’ve been wondering what animals eat cactus, here’s the list:

Camel

The first on our list is the head honcho, Mr. Humpy Grumpy, the camel. Some may call camels the epitome of desert evolution. Their humps allow them to store food and water for long periods without time.

That is how they can support their massive size in areas where food and water are sporadic.

However, the Ship of the Desert has many more features than its one or two humps. Camels have:

  • A hairy upper lip that allows biting thorny plants
  • Tough dental pad for crushing cacti
  • Specialized tongue with papillae to avoid getting hurt by thorny or spiny food
  • A throat lined with a lot of mucus to swallow hard, dry, or thorny food
  • Jaw chews in a rotating fashion to distribute pressure evenly.

All these features combined allow camels to enjoy cacti whenever they want.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Camels do feel pain while eating a prickly cactus. However, they intentionally bear it and ingest the plant anyway. The fleshy, juicy green goodness is too yummy for them to pass it up.

Rabbits and Hares

Hares like jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits enjoy some cacti from time to time. Unlike the camel, they have no specialized structures or other adaptations for eating the prickly part of the cactus.

They usually stick to the lower parts with few to zero spines, mostly the stem. That way, they enjoy the parts of the cactus that the camel probably can’t reach or won’t bother with.

While they mostly eat shrubs and grasses, they rely on cacti and water-rich vegetation for their water intake. They spread the seeds in their poop if they can reach the fruit. That’s a win-win for everyone.

Birds

Since birds can fly great distances, they can survive almost anywhere. The grittiest cities, coldest mountains, and most arid deserts are home to adventurous avians.

Birds in the desert take advantage of their beaks to peck around while avoiding cactus spines. They eat all cactus parts, including the green fleshy bits and soft fruit. In the spring, they love to sample the cactus flower beds for their nutritious pollen and nectar.

While many birds would at least try cactus, the cactus wren and Gila woodpecker are huge fans. These birds usually forage on the ground looking for insects. Like rabbits and hares, they rely on cacti for water.

Bats

Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. While movies make them out to be quite scary, some find them adorable with a unique charm.

Most bats eat insects or fruit, but there are even a few species that, indeed, drink blood.

Bats have nothing to protect them from the dangerous spiny cactus. They can get seriously injured if they try to eat the green parts of the cactus.

They stick to the cactus’s soft, sweet, juicy fruit. Like birds or rabbits, they also distribute the plant’s seeds, ensuring their reproduction. Cactus fruit is enough to keep bats hydrated throughout a long drought.

Coyotes

The American Jackal is a canine. They have a much sleeker build than domesticated dogs and are slightly smaller than wolves. They can be found in open areas all over America, mostly deserts and prairies. You will hear about them being near farms too.

You’d expect prairie dogs to be bloodthirsty predators on an all-meat diet. While that’s partly true, coyotes are omnivores.

That means they eat plants and animals just like we do. They eat the grasses and plants sprinkled around the desert.

Cacti are too rich in water for anyone to ignore them when they’re thirsty. Coyotes stick to the lower leaves and stems, which don’t have spines. In that way, they are similar to their favorite prey, the jackrabbit.

Pack Rats

Pack Rats are rodents that look like rats with long tails and big ears. They are known for storing and hiding objects in their nests.

They love to eat cacti, especially prickly pear or cholla. In fact, they will opt to nest near a cactus patch. If you live near a desert or open area and have a cactus garden, you’ll have to guard it.

While the cactus is good enough at guarding itself, the packrats will try to get at the bottom parts which lack spines.

Bovids

Bovids are animals with horns or antlers, like desert goats or deer. Like everyone else, they also need a reprieve from thirst in the sweltering desert.

Just like you’d prefer water from a fresh spring, a mule deer or desert bighorn sheep would too. However, they don’t say no when times are desperate or there’s something yummy like prickly pear available.

Bovids use the horns or antlers they are blessed with to break open the cacti. Once it’s cracked open, they can enjoy the juicy insides without fear of being pricked.

Gophers and Squirrels

Gophers and Squirrels don’t hold themselves back when seeing a prickly pear. Not many desert animals do. Like all other rodents in the desert, they also steer clear of the thorns. At this rate, if a cactus didn’t have thorns, there wouldn’t be any of it left.

Javelina

Until now, only the camel was fearless enough to eat a cactus whole, spines and all. However, it’s not alone. There’s also the Javelina or Peccary. Peccaries, often confused with razorbacks, live throughout Central America.

Peccaries also have a tough pallet to grind cacti with or without spines. They can also use their snout to break cactus stems.

Their fearless eating habits ensure that they never go thirsty in the desert. They need that hydration to outrun the packs of coyotes and other predators after them.

Nutritional Benefits of Cactus

So almost every animal that can survive in the desert most likely eats a cactus in one way or another. Do they indulge in it just for its water content, or is there something more to it?

Cacti are rich in minerals, antioxidants, betalains, and protein. Like other fruits, cactus fruits get softer and sweeter as it ripens.

To a desert animal, the cactus is almost like an MRE meal. It contains water, sugar, salts, micronutrients, and protein which can help it carry on. 

Cactus isn’t just good for desert animals but beneficial for human consumption as well. It has a known anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory effect.

Cactus paddles, or nopales, are cooked in various traditional Mexican dishes. If you aren’t ready for a full meal, you can enjoy an aloe water drink.

Do Animals Use Cacti for Anything Else?

Trees in a forest are used for more than just a source of food. They provide shelter too. Like the cactus wren, birds in the desert poke the cactus using their thin beaks and eat its flesh. Over time they can create a hole big enough to nest in.

That way, they can raise their young away from the ground, swarming with predators. While the Cactus Wren prefers the cholla, Flickers and the Western Screech Owl build their homes in the saguaro cactus.

Some animals may not live inside the cactus itself but use it for shelter another way. The white-throated woodrat steals a play from the cactus’s book and uses its spines to surround its nest. That protects their young from most trouble.

Fatplants Mini Cactus Plants Live Plants (4 Pack), Cactus Plant Indoor Live Plants, Cacti Plants Live Cactus Decor, Succulents Plants Live Houseplants, Mini Cactus Gifts in Cactus Soil Potting Mix

Conclusion

The juicy flesh of the cactus is a great source of water, minerals, vitamins, and protein for many desert animals. What animal eats cacti? Everything from bovids, and rodents, to bats, coyotes, and of course, camels indulge in cacti one way or the other. In a harsh and dry environment, tough animals can eat even tougher foods to survive. For some, it’s even a staple

You may also like: