5 Critters to Beware Of While You're Camping in the Desert

By: Christopher Lampton
Every wilderness area has its own unique variety of dangerous critters -- and the desert is no exception.
Every wilderness area has its own unique variety of dangerous critters -- and the desert is no exception. See more national park pictures.
Nivek Neslo/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Ah, camping! It's a wonderful opportunity to experience fresh air, beautiful sunrises, nature at its finest and...deadly animals eager to kill the first camper they find?

Well, not quite. Most animals, deadly or otherwise, would rather leave you alone. They see you as a potential predator or at least an annoyance and will tend to run away before you can get close enough to take a photograph. But every now and then an unwary camper stumbles on a creature that's either in a bad mood, defending its territory, or just startled to find a hapless human stepping on its tail. And sometimes these animals are dangerous. Many are venomous, a few carry disease, and some just have sharp teeth. Every wilderness area has its own unique varieties of dangerous critters and the deserts of the American southwest have more than a few, like the Arizona bark scorpion or the mountain lion.


While camping in the desert you'll want to keep a watchful eye out for these creatures. Even if you've brought weapons along to protect yourself, it's usually better just to give these animals a wide berth. Let's look at five varieties of desert animal that could potentially send you to the emergency room -- or worse.

5: Scorpion

Scorpions are strange animals. They can live for months on a single meal, slowing down their metabolisms until they're practically in suspended animation, yet can spring back to life almost instantly if they detect prey. They can be frozen overnight and thawed out the next day, none the worse for frost bite. There are about 2,000 varieties of scorpion worldwide, including many varieties that live in the desert, and all of them are poisonous.

But don't worry. Most of them don't have enough poison in their glands, or the right variety of poison, to kill a human being. Most -- but not all.


One type of scorpion that is capable of killing human beings is the Arizona bark scorpion, the most poisonous in the United States (and, ironically, one of the smallest) -- and, yes, it's found in the deserts of Arizona. You'll know if you've been stung by one because it will hurt like -- well, it will hurt about the same as if you stuck your finger in an electric socket and got it stuck there. You probably won't die from it unless you're a small child or have a weakened immune system, but even if you're a healthy and athletic adult you'll want to get to a doctor or hospital for a dose of antivenom as soon as possible, because it can take up to 72 hours for the effects to wear off -- assuming, of course, that you survive.

4: Prairie Dogs

Sure, prairie dogs are cute -- but they can also carry bubonic plague.
Sure, prairie dogs are cute -- but they can also carry bubonic plague.
Ronald Wittek/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Prairie dogs are cute, squirrel-like rodents found throughout most of the American Southwest. They're very social animals, at least among other prairie dogs, and live in clusters of underground burrows known as prairie dog towns. Prairie dogs aren't especially dangerous to human beings except in one way: They can carry bubonic plague.

Bubonic plague? Didn't that disappear in the middle ages? Not quite. It's still around and is commonly carried by small rodents like prairie dogs in the southwest. More specifically, it's carried by their fleas, which can not only infect other prairie dogs but nearby people. Your chances of infection from a prairie dog are small, but 10 to 20 cases of bubonic plague are reported in the U.S. each year and it's not a disease to be taken lightly. It can be fatal if not treated. So if you camp near a prairie dog town, don't get within flea-jumping distance of the residents. (Rock squirrels, chipmunks and wild rabbits can also carry the disease.) The good news -- for humans, if not for prairie dogs -- is that the disease kills the prairie dogs themselves so quickly that you're not likely to find an infected one while still alive. But the fleas can still spread the illness, so if you develop a high fever and swollen glands a few days after camping in prairie dog territory, you might want to get checked out by a doctor -- fast!


3: Cougar

Cougars, also known as pumas, mountain lions and by a few other names as well, are found over most of north, south and Central America. They live from northern Canada all the way south to Argentina. You don't find them in as many places as you might have at one time, however, because civilization and hunters have driven them away from places with large populations, but they're still common in the American southwest. Mountain lions are predators, but fortunately humans aren't their normal prey. Nonetheless, every couple of years some unlucky person meets a cougar who doesn't seem to understand the "humans-aren't-prey" rule, maybe because the human is injured and looks like easy pickings. So mountain lion attacks, though rare, are still a threat to be taken seriously. And when one happens, the attack can be vicious. Mountain lions go for the neck and a bite from their sharp teeth can be fatal.

Some experts say that the best thing to do if you meet a mountain lion who appears interested in you is to look threatening, even aggressive, as though you'd be willing to put up a fight. Throw things at the animal. It will probably decide to go look for less annoying prey and leave you alone. And then you should immediately look for a new campground.


2: Rattlesnake

A frightened rattlesnake will probably just give you a little "love bite" to warn you away.
A frightened rattlesnake will probably just give you a little "love bite" to warn you away.
Paul McCormick/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Here's the good news about rattlesnakes: They're more afraid of you than you are of them. If they see you coming, they'll probably run and hide. The bad news is: It's fairly easy to sneak up on them.

A frightened rattlesnake will probably just give you a little "love bite" to warn you away. You've no doubt heard that rattlesnakes are venomous and that's absolutely true, but the rattlesnake can decide just how much venom to give you along with a bite, much as a doctor can decide how much medicine to inject from a hypodermic. If the snake isn't angry, it might not inject any venom at all. On the other hand, if you've stomped on it with the corrugated soles of your hiking boots, it may decide it wants to give you a lesson you'll never forget.


Rattlesnake venom can take anywhere from 6 to 48 hours to kill the victim, so whip out your phone, call 911, and see if the local emergency response team can send an ambulance (or, better yet, a helicopter) to get you some antivenin medicine immediately. And, if it makes you feel better while you're waiting for the medtechs to arrive, remind yourself that thousands of people are bitten by venomous snakes each year and only about five die. But get on that phone fast (or have someone drive you to the nearest doctor) anyway. You don't want to be one of those five.

1: Killer Bees

Killer bees, also known as Africanized honey bees, really shouldn't exist in the Americas at all. They were the result of a crossbreeding experiment between European and African bees performed in the 1950s in Brazil in an attempt to come up with a hybrid bee that could survive the tropical climate. The crossbreeding worked and the hybrid bees tend to produce more honey than European honeybees, but some of the hybrid bees got loose and mated with the local bee population. This produced an extremely aggressive strain of "Africanized" bees that, while having a sting that's no more poisonous than that of your average honeybee, is far more likely to defend its hives by attacking in large swarms. Africanized bees can detect intruders on their territory, such as humans, at longer distances than other bees and will chase those intruders for longer distances too. Africanized bees are like tiny, heat-seeking missiles. When they get on your trail, it's difficult to get them off.

By the early 1990s, the Africanized bees had reached the United States, at first spreading into the desert regions of the Southwest. Since then they've spread even further and, while not quite the threat that movies and novels sometimes make them out to be, nonetheless kill one or two people a year. While their reputation as "killer bees" is more than a little exaggerated -- any bee sting can kill a person who has an allergy to bee stings -- it's still probably wise to avoid any bee hives in the vicinity of your camping grounds, even if the inhabitants look like normal, non-aggressive honeybees.


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Author's Note: 5 Critters to Beware Of While You're Camping in the Desert

I'm lucky enough to live in a cool, lush part of Los Angeles near the ocean, but when I drive about 70 miles to the north I find myself on the fringes of the Mojave Desert, which is one corner of the great deserts of the American Southwest. As Aladdin once said, at least in a Disney movie, it's a whole new world up there -- dry, mountainous, brush-covered and sandy. I haven't encountered much of the local fauna up there yet, mostly just tumbleweeds and Joshua trees. But I think it would be fascinating to see a rattlesnake or a mountain lion in its natural habitat -- as long as I'm seeing it through a pair of binoculars and have my car nearby to make a quick getaway. Still, I might try camping up there one night with my girlfriend, and writing this article has given me a good idea just what to keep my eye out for -- and what to keep out of my sleeping bag.

Related Articles

  • Columbia University. "Introduced Species Summary Project: Africanized Honey Bee." (July 24, 2012) http://www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/Apis_mellifera_scutellata.htm
  • DesertUSA. "Killer Bees." (July 24, 2012) http://www.desertusa.com/mag98/sep/stories/kbees.html
  • DesertUSA. "Prairie Dogs." (July 24, 2012) http://www.desertusa.com/dec96/du_pdogs.html
  • DuHamel, Jonathan. "The most dangerous venomous animals of the Southwest." The Tucson Citizen. (July 24, 2012) http://tucsoncitizen.com/wryheat/2011/10/05/the-most-dangerous-venomous-animals-of-the-southwest/
  • National Geographic. "Mountain Lion." (July 24, 2012) http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/mountain-lion/
  • National Geographic. "Scorpion." (July 24, 2012) http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/scorpion/
  • Ninh, Amie. "First Case of Bubonic Plague in 2011 Appears in New Mexico." Time - Healthland. (July 24, 2012) http://healthland.time.com/2011/05/10/first-case-of-bubonic-plague-in-2011-appears-in-new-mexico/
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  • Tchester.org. "List of Mountain Lion Attacks on People in California." (July 24, 2012) http://tchester.org/sgm/lists/lion_attacks_ca.html