Without immediate access to water and heat, the desert can feel like a giant oven. For some animals, hiding under a rock works and for other animals staying in the shade can help. The animals you will find in this article have found a different way to hack desert life, by digging… or burrowing. There are many different kinds of desert animals that burrow to stay cool in the deserts of the southwestern United States.
By being fossorial, or a burrower, these animals can withstand the extreme and downright brutal heat temperatures of the day reaching well over 100 degrees in the desert.
17 desert animals that burrow
North America is home to four desert regions, each one full of life and home to wondrous fossorial creatures. These are the Great Basin, Mohave, Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. Here are over 17 different North American desert animals that burrow.
1. Desert antelope squirrels
- Aka: Harris’ antelope squirrel, antelope squirrel
- Scientific name: Ammospermophilus harrisii
- Desert(s) found: Sonora, Mohave, Great basin, Chihuahuan
With the colors of an antelope and the tenacity of a chipmunk, these little guys find life in a desert a non-issue. Living up to eleven years, this little squirrel burrows in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico.
These squirrels are feisty little beings that can climb up cacti and use their tails like tiny sun umbrellas to protect themselves during the day. Despite having a burrow to beat the heat, they will still venture outside during the midday heat to look for food.
When they are not foraging or dumping heat (spreading out flat on top of shady areas), the squirrels will retreat to burrows they have made under the surrounding vegetation.
2. Hog-nosed skunk
- Aka: American hog-nosed skunk, warthog nosed skunk
- Scientific name: Conepatus leuconotus
- Desert(s) found: Sonora, Chihuahuan, Great Basin
Surprisingly some skunks are very capable of living in the desert. The pig-nosed skunk’s torso and front paws resemble a badger which helps them burrow nice cool spots underground to wait out the day’s hottest hours until they are ready to hunt again at night.
Many desert regions actually benefit from this creature’s digging habits because the burrows provide aeration [air dispersal] underground and doing so helps keep food sources (such as insects) easier to find for the animals that eat them.
3. Desert wood pack rat
- Aka: desert rat, wood rat, pack rat
- Scientific name: Neotoma lepida
- Desert(s) found: Sonoran, Chhuahuan, Mojave, Great Basin
Even though this animal is able to dig out its own burrow, it prefers remodeling abandoned burrows first. This creature is unique in the sense that not only does it remodel a new burrow, but custom decorates with the various objects it collects.
The ultimate hoarder, the pack rat’s nickname ultimately stems from its behavior of stashing and storing a countless variety of items inside its burrow and building a front door to protect its treasures with spiky cactus and sticks.
4. Desert kit fox
- Aka: kit fox
- Scientific name: Vulpes macrotis
- Desert(s) found: Mohave, Sonoran, Great Basin, Chihuahuan
These tough little “cat-dogs” survive by burrowing underground to shelter from the blazing desert temperatures. The burrow of this animal has unique ‘keyhole’ shaped openings that allow the fox to easily enter and exit, something which predators such as coyotes are unable to do. Many different burrows are used at the same time and can expand up to 20 feet long in some cases.
5. Desert digger bee
- Aka: pallid bee, desert bee
- Scientific name: Centris pallida
- Desert(s) found: Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan
This little bee is very, very busy burrowing underground to escape hot temperatures. A single female digger will start burrowing into the desert soil when it’s time to make a home using her jaws and legs.
Digger bees are unique in that they are solitary bees, there are no workers to assist the queen, she is in fact a solitary creature. Burrowers will spend their entire lives burrowing and nesting, and it is up to male digger bees to find her under the dry desert soil in order to mate with females.
6. Darkling beetles
- Aka: skunk beetle, stink beetle, pinacate beetle
- Scientific name: Tenebrionidae
- Desert(s) found: Sonoran, Great Basin
Without the ability to fly, these little creatures use what they can to burrow underground to get cooler. Having a burrow underground means they can easily find the food they like (fungus and feces).
In order to burrow into the sand, the beetles are covered in fine hairs called tibiae protecting them from sand suffocation. Baby larvae (superworms) are a coveted meal relished by many other desert animals, so to protect themselves underground in the burrows they release a strong skunk-like odor to protect themselves from being eaten.
7. Desert shrew
- Aka: Crawford’s gray shrew
- Scientific name: Notiosorex crawfordi
- Desert(s) found: Mojave
These insectivores are the tiniest of burrowers. Unlike other shrews who physically burrow themselves, the desert shrew ‘shares’ the excavated tunnels of the Pack Rat, doing this allows the creature to beat the heat and find tasty snacks easily. The desert shrew will spend most of their time in these burrowed tunnels, living solitary lifestyles alongside other desert burrowers.
8. Gila monster
- Aka: Chiapan beaded lizard
- Scientific name: Heloderma suspectum
- Desert(s) found: Sonoran, Mojave and Chihuahuan
These ‘hermit’ reptiles tend to stay most of their waking hours underground in their burrows. Using claws perfectly adapted for digging through sand they can burrow both a summer and winter home. These solitary creature have been known to also burrow abandoned burrows but more often sharing the burrow with tortoises.
The Gila monster is one of only a small number of venomous lizards in the world. Their venom is comparable to that of a western diamondback rattlesnake, which is one of the most deadly snakes in the United States.
9. Gila Woodpeckers
- Aka: Brewster’s woodpeckers, cardon woodpeckers
- Scientific name: Melanerpes uropygialis
- Desert(s) found: Sonoran
As we mentioned before burrowing is all about escaping the heat, and these birds have found a way to burrow above ground in the desert. The Gila Woodpecker doesn’t burrow into the ground, but into the saguaro cactus. They spend their time pecking and burrowing into these trees which allow them to survive in an almost treeless desert region.
While the burrowing provides shelter for these birds, it also gives the birds a food source. Once the last baby woodpecker has officially left the nest, the burrowed home is abandoned and re-homed by many other animals.
10. Desert Tortoise
- Aka: gopher tortoise
- Scientific name: Gopherus agassizii
- Desert(s) found: Mojave, Sonoran
Despite the visual awkwardness one would think a tortoise would not be able to burrow underground, however, the desert tortoise consistently does so. Using its inner ‘compass’ the tortoise will burrow a snug place for itself with faces a northern direction.
Desert tortoises have burrowing perfected; providing themselves with a cooler shelter than most during the sweltering temperatures of a desert. Tortoise burrows are dug horizontally and spread outwards to 30 feet, sharing the space with other turtles and fellow burrowers.
11. Giant Hairy Scorpion
- Aka: desert hairy scorpion
- Scientific name: Hadrurus arizonensis
- Desert(s) found: Sonoran, Mojave
Named after their size and the type of hairs on their body, the burrows these animals live in go deep down to almost eight feet. Burrows of this depth take up a lot of time to maintain most of the scorpions free time, besides eating and sleeping, is spent building and expanding its burrow. These scorpions can also be found in Nevada and Utah.
12. Kangaroo Rat
- Aka: desert rat, rat kangaroo, pocket kangaroo
- Scientific name: Dipodomys
- Desert(s) found: Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin, Chihuahuan
Not all rodent burrows are the same and an example of this is the Kangaroo rat’s burrowing technique. Using the same technique as the Kit fox, the burrow of this animal has many spread out openings, making the ground above the burrow look lumpy.
Many desert animals use Kangaroo burrows for their own home, as the burrows are of top quality with intricate tunneling systems underneath the surface. It is extremely hard to find burrows made by these rodents ever abandoned.
The kangaroo rat has adapted to life in the desert and actually requires no water to survive. They get all moisture they need from the seeds in their diet and will actually live their entire lives never drinking water.
13. Baird’s pocket gopher
- Aka: pocket gopher, gopher
- Scientific name: Geomyidae
- Desert(s) found: Chihuahua, Great Basin
A camouflage expert, the burrowing technique executed by these animals is of a high standard. Gopher life is spent almost completely underground. A mound of dirt is the only indication of the burrows location.
The gophers are so highly adept at a life underground, that they simply fill up any entrance and exit to prevent the burrow from being discovered.
14. Couch’s spadefoot toad
- Aka: spade-footed toad, spades
- Scientific name: Scaphiopodidae
- Desert(s) found: Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin, Chihuahuan
As most animals dig forwards, this little guy digs backwards. Using the special appendages on its back feet, in a circular motion, it is able to push its body inside the burrow at the same time he is constructing it.
Desert toads can burrow backwards downwards to ten feet. The toad will allow the soil to collapse over its head so that it can wait for the little bit of rain that occasionally falls in the desert. There are accounts of this little guy spending up to a decade underground.
15. Desert sand roach
- Aka: sand roach, desert roach
- Scientific name: Arenivaga erratica
- Desert(s) found: Sonoran
These roaches are found only outside in desert sandy regions. The roach’s burrow only two feet down as the roacheds are able to reach the coolness of the night, while at the same time avoiding the heat of the day.
Unfortunately for the Sand roach, the shallowness of the burrow causes the sand to continually collapse, so the little sand roach spends its entire lifespan burrowing a never-ending tunnel.
16. Desert Tarantula
- Aka: western desert tarantula, Arizona desert tarantula, Mexican blond tarantula
- Scientific name: Aphonopelma chalcodes
- Desert(s) found: Chihuahuan, Mojave, Sonoran
Creepy and crawly, tarantulas are also burrowing experts, digging their way down almost half a foot deep. These creatures usually wait for dinner to come to them, lining their burrows to catch prey and prevent the burrows from caving in on top of them.
As the tarantula grows so too does their burrows. To prevent the rare case of its burrow getting wet; the spider will create a silk plug at the burrow’s entrance to help keep its home sweet home, nice and dry.
17. Horned Lizards
- Aka: desert horned lizard, texas horny toad, horny toad
- Scientific name: Phrynosoma platyrhinos
- Desert(s) found: Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan
A shovel like head is used by these creatures to dig out their own home. The burrows of these creatures are extremely shallow, just enough to encapsulate their bodies. Burrowing just underneath the sand this way allows the lizard to escape the most heat extremes.
The burrowing lizard also benefits by capturing the heat that touches its skin; becoming their own heating pad in order to survive during colder nighttime temperatures.