16 Desert Animals That Eat Cactus

Desert Animals That Eat Cactus
Photo by Mikes-Photography

Have you ever wondered about the types of desert animals that eat cactus?

You may be surprised to learn that numerous species of mammals, birds, and reptiles feed on the prickly desert vegetation.

Cacti have adapted to survive in harsh desert environments and have developed thick spines to protect the plant from predators and prevent water loss in dry climates. 

The hardy plants have adapted so well that some animals actually enjoy munching them, despite the prickles!

In this article, we’ll look at some of the most impressive desert animals that eat cactus.

From iguanas to kangaroo rats, get ready to explore some of Mother Nature’s most unusual nutritionists!

1. Bats

Bats are fascinating desert animals that eat cactus primarily. With unique adaptations for surviving the harsh conditions of arid habitats, bats will soften the tough skin of a cactus before consuming its juicy material. It will also blend in perfectly with the foliage and camouflage from potential predators. 

They use echolocation to detect their prey, and many species eat cacti, such as saguaros and organ pipes exclusively. These desert-dwelling bats tend to congregate near water sources available during summer nights, using their potent smell to locate nectar-producing flowers to harvest their sweet treat of choice. 

In addition, they have been known to collect and store water in cacti by licking the succulent meat off some species, which helps them survive during dry times when water isn’t readily available. Bats play an essential role in certain desert ecosystems by pollinating plants, dispersing seeds, maintaining pest populations low, and contributing to nutrient cycling processes.

2. Harris’s Antelope Squirrel

The second on this list of desert animals that eat cactus is Harris’s antelope squirrel, a small rodent found mainly in desert areas. While they look like any other ground-dwelling antelope squirrel, they have adapted to living in harsh and arid climates due to their unique diet. These squirrels are primarily herbivorous, but they also eat cacti when available. 

This makes them one of the only species of antelope squirrels that can survive in such challenging environments since they can get their nutrients from the cactus rather than plants and insects that may not be as readily available. Harris’s antelope squirrel is an interesting desert animal as it survives even if there is a scarcity of other food sources. In addition, these animals have a lot of natural defense mechanisms such as being able to quickly hide from predators with their incredibly fast running speed, making it difficult for potential predators to catch the speedy squirrels.

3. Iguanas

Iguanas make fantastic desert animals due to their ability to survive in the harsh, arid environment of the desert. Not only can they withstand extreme temperatures, but they are also desert animals that eat cactus as a source of nutrition. Iguanas are omnivores and primarily feed off berries, flowers, insects, and small lizards. 

On occasion, iguanas will also eat a prickly pear and cholla cacti for their moisture content as well as nutritious benefits like vitamin C. As a result, iguanas are excellent additions to desert ecosystems because they aid in controlling vegetation levels by consuming cacti that might otherwise grow uncontrollably. They offer an array of benefits such as pollinators for other plants that rely on them for reproduction and help keep indigenous plant populations stable through a natural cycle of consumption and regrowth.

4. Eastern Cottontail

The Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is one of the most commonly found and familiar species of wild rabbit in North America. As a herbivore, they predominantly feed on various types of vegetation including grasses, clovers, twigs, and leaves from shrubs, fruits, and even flowers when available. Equally important to note, they are one of the types of desert animals that eat cactus! 

Eastern cottontails are also known to enjoy eating certain parts of cacti such as the flowers, buds, or pads. Cacti provide essential hydration for these animals in arid habitats where other food sources can be scarce. While most of their diets consist of herbaceous plants, eastern cottontails are opportunistic feeders meaning they will take advantage of whatever food sources are readily available to them.

5. Gilded Flicker Bird

The gilded flicker bird is a bold and beautiful avian member of the woodpecker family that is mostly found in arid and desert habitats throughout the southwestern United States, Mexico, and parts of western Canada. This chunky bird has a distinct combination of the brownish body with an olive-green head, bright yellow underwings, red neck patch, and black back. The striking coloring and pattern make it one of the most eye-catching birds in its region.

Not only does the gilded flicker dazzle people with its appearance, but it also captivates them with its unique diet. Though they typically feast on insects like beetles and grasshoppers, these birds are particularly fond of cactus fruits as well as their floral blooms. These cactus fruits are essential for their survival since they provide much-needed hydration during times when there are few available water sources for them to tap into for sustenance. 

Fortunately for these birds, the prickly spines often seen on cacti help open up various channels within the plant allowing them easy access to all the juicy goodness inside! They are also not left out of this list of the different desert animals that eat cactus.

6. Gila Woodpecker

Of the desert animals that eat cactus, the Gila Woodpecker is a medium-sized bird from the American Southwest and Mexico. It has a bright red crest, black wings with white patches, a gray back, and banded tail feathers. This woodpecker is an important insectivore in desert regions because it drills holes in trees and cacti to access them- this also helps desert plants get water and nutrients that were otherwise inaccessible. 

One of their signature characteristics is their willingness to feast on the sugary liquid inside of cacti, which they obtain by poking or peeling into the tough skin of various cacti species. These birds have been known to incorporate a variety of different fruits and insects into their diets as well as cactus. The Gila Woodpeckers have evolved several adaptations that enable them to feed on this food source. 

They have specially designed tongues, beaks and nails for peeling into the prickly fruit rinds of desert plants, allowing them to get at the sweet juices inside. Their stomachs are more resistant to spines than other birds’ due to various growths in their gizzards that form protective layers against sharp textures. 

In addition, Gila Woodpeckers collect large quantities of cactus fruit during periods when they are most abundant so they can store supplies for other times when these foods become scarce. These unique adaptations allow the Gila Woodpecker, one of the desert animals that eat cactus, to combine nutrition and convenience together in harmony!

7. Coyotes

Coyotes are found throughout the world in many different habitats and climates, but they are commonly known as desert animals. Coyotes primarily feed on small mammals like rabbits and rodents, but they also enjoy diverse snacks such as cacti. Cactus is an important dietary supplement for coyotes living in arid environments because they provide needed moisture and nutrients. 

Coyotes will actively seek out juicy cacti fruits after rain or during times of drought when other sources of food and water may be unavailable. They will consume the entirety of the fruit, including seeds, to get maximum nutrition from their meal. Coyotes are desert animals that eat cactus and may also eat the pads of certain types of prickly pear cacti for a more crunchy snack!

8. Chipmunks

Chipmunks are small mammals that can be spotted scurrying across the ground, searching for food. These animals have fuzzy coats and cute little faces, making them a favorite among nature enthusiasts. Native to North America, they can also be found residing in South America and some parts of Europe.

Chipmunks are omnivores, meaning they eat both meat and vegetation to survive. During the dry season, when vegetation is scarce, these adorable creatures are known to eat cacti as part of their main diet. Thus, they are also on this list of desert animals that eat cactus.

Cacti may not be the most appetizing option for humans, but that doesn’t seem to stop chipmunks from eating them! As desert animals that eat cactus, they prefer smaller varieties of cacti which are easier to bite into and chew up with their tiny teeth. 

While they usually grab onto the plant’s stem with their claws to steady themselves while eating away at it, if necessary, they will even stand on their hind legs hunching over like other desert mammals such as prairie dogs and jackrabbits to reach further for the succulent treat inside. Once the spines have been stripped off and discarded, these rodents can then savor the juicy innards of their nutritional feast!

9. Mice

Mice are small desert animals that eat cactus and are generally known for their omnivorous diet. In natural habitats, mice feed on a variety of plant and animal material, but their primary food source is cacti. Due to their small size and spikes in the cacti, mice can easily scale the prickly plants in search of sweet nectar and juicy fruits. 

The hot temperature and lack of moisture in the desert also play a role in making cacti an ideal food source for mice. They use the barbed thorns for protection from predators as well as for accessing water – by scraping them off and licking or eating the juice that drips from them. Cactus also serve as shelter for these tiny creatures, who face threats be it from other animals or harsh weather conditions. 

Mice use cacti as resting spots during daytime hours when temperatures are too high, and they need cover to cool off in relative safety from predators. Cactus leaves offer mice some shade, so they don’t get too hot while napping below the surface. 

This helps them conserve energy until nightfall, when temperatures drop significantly, allowing them to come out again and look for food safely. Cactus fruit is particularly desirable to mice because of its sugary content. It provides the necessary energy needed by these always-on-the-go animals to survive harsh weather conditions experienced in arid climates like deserts.

10. Jackrabbits

Jackrabbits are the perfect dessert animals that eat cactus that can be found in the hot and dry deserts of North America. These unique creatures are known to be adept climbers, able to scale cacti to get their precious sap nimbly. It’s thought that they also use their sharp, powerful claws to climb around trees and shrubs as well. 

Jackrabbits have evolved an impressive ability to drink sap from cacti through long tongues and tough teeth capable of chewing off small pieces of tissue with ease. They also consume the tiny fruit and petals on the cactus flower when available. However, most of their diet consists of succulent shoots, making them true desert omnivores. 

This incredible adaptation allows them to survive in otherwise harsh conditions by not having to rely on scarce resources from other species or sources outside the desert. In fact, even during periods of extreme drought, jackrabbits may be seen drinking from dried riverbeds and hoarding water in underground burrows which they’ve dug themselves! All in all, it’s clear why these amazing creatures are so well suited for desert life.

11. Prairie Dogs

Prairie dogs are small rodents known for their active social lives, living in burrow colonies of 25 to over 300 individuals. Being desert animals that eat cactus as part of their diet, they consume cacti among other vegetation and invertebrates. Eating cacti makes them ideal inhabitants of the arid plains they call home, as they help disperse cactus seeds, aiding in the habitat’s biodiversity and restoration. 

Although prairie dogs are often preyed upon by animals like coyotes and badgers, it is thought that their cactus-based diets help protect them from predators due to toxins found within the plants. The prickly pear species contain high levels of cardenolides, a type of steroidal glycoside similarly dangerous to humans as digitalis, making any predator that preys on prairie dog colonies potentially ill or even dead due to ingestion alone. Although an unpleasant side effect for potential predators, this defensive mechanism helps keep prairie dog populations safe from most land-based enemies.

12. Camels

Camels are also desert animals that eat cactus and are capable of surviving in some of the harshest climates on Earth. They have several remarkable adaptive features which help them to thrive in harsh environments with little access to water and food. Camels are well-known for their ability to go long periods without drinking water, thanks to an extra-thick layer of fat and three stomachs equipped with an enzyme that helps extract moisture from their food sources. 

When it comes to food sources, camels typically eat a variety of plants such as cacti, grasses, and shrubs. Cacti are a favorite among camels due to their high nutrition content and lack of moisture; they don’t even need to drink much water while eating the plant! Camels can fit quite a bit into their mouths although most cactus spines aren’t sharp enough to harm them since they have thick coats of fur or leathery skin on their heads. 

Camels also have adaptations like wide feet that spread out their weight when walking through sandy terrain so as not to be bogged down by the shifting sand beneath them. Together, these features allow camels to survive even in the most desolate climates where other herbivores cannot stay sustainably fed and hydrated.

13. Ground Squirrels

Ground squirrels are commonly found in grassland and semi-arid ecosystems around the world. These small rodents are considered to be a major nuisance for farmers who deal with crop damage due to their feeding habits. Despite being small, ground squirrels have an appetite for desert plants, including cacti! 

This may seem unusual given that cactus typically lack traditional food sources, such as seeds or grain, but ground squirrels have adapted remarkably well to life in arid environments. Ground squirrels will consume the spines and flesh of cacti, where they can find many essential nutrients such as water, carbohydrates, fat, and protein. In fact, their specialized diet and digestive systems allow them to derive sustenance from a wide variety of species of desert plants other than cacti. 

Indeed, ground squirrels have been observed eating flowers, leaves, stems, and fruits within the arid areas they inhabit. It is believed that ground squirrels help spread the pollen of these plants by consuming them and then carrying them to other parts of their habitat via their fur. Thus, these little critters on this list of desert animals that eat cactus, play an important role in propagating vital plant life even in inhospitable environments like deserts!

14. Javelinas

Looking for desert animals that eat cactus? Javelinas, or collared peccaries, are one and are found throughout the American Southwest and Mexico. They belong to the pig family, Tayassuidae, and weigh about 10-30 kilograms when fully grown. Javelinas have been known to roam in groups of up to 15 individuals. The name javelina comes from the Spanish form of a French word for “skunk.”

Javelinas are well adapted to desert life; one of their most unique adaptations is their diet. In addition to eating insects and other small animals, they feed on cacti, particularly prickly pear. Their rough lips help them grip the spines of the cactus while they bite off sections which they strip away with their razor-sharp incisors. 

These animals can often be seen tugging at agave pads and devouring ripe fruits such as wild grapes and mulberries when it is available. Javelinas possess a unique adaptability that enables them to survive in many harsh habitats including desert environments where cacti are plentiful!

15. Packrats

Packrats are nocturnal animals that can be found in the desert regions of North and Central America. They are well-adapted to survive in these harsh environments, having a thick layer of fur that offers insulation for cold nights, long bushy tails for balance on rocky surfaces, and feet with four toes that help them climb. Most packrats weigh less than two pounds when fully grown and have a lifespan of up to four years. 

One of the most interesting behaviors associated with packrats, which are also desert animals that eat cactus, is their diet. These small rodents will consume almost anything they come across in their habitat including cactus fruits, which most animals won’t eat due to the sharp spines on them. Packrats have an incredibly strong set of teeth which enables them to gnaw through the cactus fruit’s hard exterior so they can enjoy its sweet flavor. 

Packrats are essential in many desert communities as they help disperse seeds from numerous plants while scavenge around looking for food items. They also provide food sources for predators such as coyotes and roadrunner, who may explore their burrows for winter meals.

16. Gophers

Gophers are small rodents that are native to North and Central America, as well as parts of Eurasia. While they’re not commonly considered desert animals, gophers love to munch on cacti exclusively for sustenance. They are considered desert animals that eat cactus and typically live in burrows dug underground. They will come out during the day to feed on their favorite type of plant food. 

The adaptations of their mouth and teeth allow them to easily crunch through the cactus’s tough skin and the pulpy center. Evidence shows that gophers have been eating cacti long before humans ever became aware of them. In many regions around their natural habitats, they have become integral to the local ecosystem by keeping the overgrowth population of some species of cacti in check. 

This can be beneficial for other species as it prevents certain plants from overtaking the landscape. This allows them more space to thrive alongside other wildlife creatures that require large amounts of open land, such as wild rabbits or foxes. While these animals may not be the most exciting desert companion for locals or visitors, it’s important to recognize their valuable role in maintaining balance in their natural environment.


The conclusion on desert animals that eat cactus is that while some animals may not typically eat cacti, they can obtain nutrition from the plant if necessary. Animals like shrews and moles have been feasting on cacti when other food sources are scarce. Additionally, certain species of birds and lizards can subsist almost entirely on a diet composed of various types of cacti.

Human beings can also derive nutrition from various types of cacti with careful preparation. The humble cactus plays an important role for many different kinds of animals living in desert conditions.

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