The Baja California peninsula is like no place else on earth, a fact reflected in the peninsula’s distinctive and often unique flora and fauna.
Much of the fascinating diversity in Baja California Sur is due to what is called island endemism, a process by which plants and animals develop independently in specific isolated environments. The unique island endemism of the Galapagos, for example, famously helped to inspire Darwin’s theory of evolution. Coastal islands off Baja California Sur like Magdalena and Espiritu Santo are hotbeds for endemic species, which have necessarily evolved over time in order to survive in their geographically circumscribed environments.
But the peninsular mainland – “almost an island” in Bruce Berger’s felicitous phrase – boasts its own collection of strange and wonderful creatures, with many specifically adapted to the central or southern sierras, or to low-lying desert areas. Some are indigenous but not endemic, meaning they can also be found in other regions. Others are sui generis, found only in Baja.
Here are 10 of our “only in Baja” favorites.
Creeping Devil (Stenocereus eruca)
This creepy member of the Cactaceae family is certainly distinctive, not only for its caterpillar like appearance, but its ability to move. Large colonies of the columnar succulents can be found on the central Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, where they invariably seem engaged in some sort of slow-speed migration. The cacti grow at one end while the other end dies, and during the course of this ongoing process travel up to two feet a year on average. As if that weren’t weird enough, Creeping Devils are also able to clone themselves.
Belding’s Yellowthroat (Geothlypis beldingi)
Although habitat loss is an ongoing problem, the estuary and bird sanctuary in San Jose del Cabo remains one of the best places to see this yellow throated warbler named for California naturalist Lyman Belding. It is easily identifiable by its song – deeper and louder than that of the common yellowthroat – as well as its coloring. Males of this species endemic to the Capes Region differ from females by having a black mask across their face. Females have an olive rather than yellow crown.
Black Jackrabbit of Espiritu Santo (Lepus insularis)
Yes, its conservation status is listed as “near threatened,” but that’s largely because of the limited range of this intriguing species. The black jackrabbit lives only on one island, Espiritu Santo north of La Paz, an uninhabited, protected biosphere reserve with a thriving habitat that also includes an endemic antelope squirrel. The black jackrabbit has few if any natural predators, and visitors to the island can occasionally glimpse these famous residents hopping amid native grasses and shrubs.
Isla Santa Catalina Rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinensis)
Several varieties of rattlesnake live in Baja, but only one lacks the characteristic feature from which the name is derived: the so-called rattleless rattlesnake of Santa Catalina Island. Actually there are vestigial bands, just not enough for the telltale sound which warns of its presence. It was once thought that this species evolved in order to silently hunt birds, but it is currently thought to be a specific adaptation to a lack of traditional predators. Its diet is now primarily mouse and lizard based, and probably always was. A positive note for visitors to the Islands of Loreto is that this venomous pit viper is small – about two feet in length – and rarely hides. It can usually be found in arroyos on the western side of the island, occasionally climbing onto low-lying bush branches during the hot summer months.
Baja Blue Rock Lizard (Petrosaurus thalassinus)
There are two subspecies of this beautiful blue iguana: one that lives in the mountain ranges – Sierra de la Laguna and Sierra La Trinidad – in the southernmost part of the Baja California peninsula; and another that inhabits offshore islands near La Paz like Espiritu Santo and Partida. Adults reach nearly a foot and a half in length, and feed on insects, leaves, seeds and smaller lizards. Males become even more colorful during the breeding season, which takes place during spring. Life expectancy is about 20 years.
Isla Magdalena Spiny Cactus (Echinocereus barthelowanus)
Perhaps best known as a Gray Whale breeding ground, Magdalena Bay is also one of the most phenomenal fishing spots on the planet. Two offshore islands protecting this natural paradise, Magdalena and Margarita, are also home to some of the world’s most interesting species of cactus, several of which are endemic. Echinocereus barthelowanus is among the least known, and looks somewhat like a star cluster shooting off a thousand rays of light. The spines are long, voluminous, piercing and wisely avoided at all times.
Espiritu Santo Antelope Squirrel (Ammospermophilus insularis)
No, this rodent doesn’t have antlers. It’s an adorable subspecies of the common white-tailed antelope squirrel found only on Isla Espiritu Santo. Small, diurnal and prone to burrowing – burrows provide both a home and protection against extreme temperatures – Ammospermophilus insularis varies his diet according to the seasons, largely subsisting on plants, seeds, fruits, insects and small lizards. The squirrels breed during the spring, with a month-long gestation period typically producing litters of 5 to 14 babies.
Baja Elephant Tree (Pachycormus discolor)
This gray-barked tree with branches as thick as elephant trunks is most commonly found in the central Sierra de la Giganta, although subspecies can be found on Pacific Coast islands like Cedros, Magdalena and Margarita. It matures up to 30 feet in height – impressive when not contrasted with a towering 60’ Cardon cactus – grows seasonal clusters of small leaves, and blooms brilliant pink flowers from late spring until early autumn. It should not be confused with Bursera microphylla, a native but not endemic Baja “Elephant Tree.”
Xantus’s Hummingbird (Basilinna xantusii)
This small 3 to 4 gram hummingbird is an extraordinarily prized sighting for visiting birdwatchers. Named for a Hungarian naturalist named Janos Xantus who spent several years during the latter half of the 19th century recording tide levels and collecting specimens near Land’s End in Cabo San Lucas, Basilinna xantusii is endemic to Baja California Sur, but has been known to wander as far north as British Columbia. It feeds on flower nectar and is most commonly seen around breeding habitats in the Capes Region, and on the islands of Cerralvo and San Jose. Genders may be differentiated by throat color: iridescent green for males, cinnamon for females.
Isla San Marcos Barefoot Gecko (Coleonyx switaki gypsicolus)
Banded geckos are common to much of the southwestern U.S., Mexico and parts of Central America. One fantastically colored subspecies, however, lives only on a 5.6 mile long island off the Baja Sur coast near Santa Rosalia. That would be the rare Barefoot Gecko of Isla San Marcos, a tiny 3 to 4 inch lizard that feasts on spiders and insects. They feed at night and typically remain hidden during the day, seeking cover under rocks or in deep crevices. They often emit a squeak when threatened, and can distract predators by “dropping” their tail, which subsequently grows back.
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