Did you know some animals eat cactus? It sounds surprising knowing that cacti are generally spikey.
They are also quite unusual because they morph into huge plants with little water. Besides, the cactus is both a fruit and a vegetable. The pad forms the vegetable part while the fruit stands out separately.
While planting them, routine activities such as repotting, replanting, or pruning could prove quite a daunting task for gardeners.
Let us learn which animals prefer eating them.
What Animals Eat Prickly Pear Cactus?
Several animals eat cacti, especially the prickly pear one. These animals have anatomical and physiological features that enable them to eat them without any side effects or harm.
Here is a quick list of these animals.
- Prairie dogs
- Ground squirrels
- Javelinas / Collared Peccary
- Rodents ( packrats, mice, gophers, chipmunks, kangaroo rat, woodrat)
- Birds (Gila woodpecker, gilded flicker birds)
- Eastern Cotton Tail
- Harris’s antelope squirrels
Let’s get into the details and learn how these animals survive eating the spiky plant.
By nature, camels thrive well in arid and semi-arid regions, which means they have adapted to eating desert plants such as the cacti. Their expertise in consuming the Prickly Pear cactus is beyond comparison.
What makes this possible is their standout bodily features. For instance, they contain a hard palate found in the upper part of their mouth.
Once they start chewing the cacti, they grind it with their teeth upon this palate.
Apart from the prickly pear cacti, camels also love the Jumping Cholla, which contains numerous sharp barbs and spines.
Camels typically consume the pads and the spines of the cacti. The nature of their lips makes it easy for them to eat the cacti. It’s thick and leathery, which helps ease any pain caused by eating the spikes.
Their rotating chew helps reduce pressure from the cacti. This makes it easy for the papillae to slide the cactus needles vertically through the throat, which reduces instances of the needles poking the camel during ingestion.
It’s apparent that eating cacti sometimes hurts the camels, but they choose to go through the discomfort to enjoy the fleshy green parts of the plant.
The Jackrabbit is a desert mammal that survives on cacti. Despite being referred to as a rabbit, it belongs to the hare’s family.
Some of its adaptive features for desert survival are long ears for sensing danger miles away. The long ears also help them cool their body temperatures in the hot desert environment.
Jackrabbits roam about in the open, looking for food. Their main meal is cacti and other desert vegetation such as fruits and grass.
They disperse cacti fruit seeds through their feces. Also, they mainly consume the fleshy part of the cacti while avoiding the spikes.
3. Prairie Dogs
Prairie dogs are herbivorous rodents that love to burrow.
If they find nothing to eat from their burrowing, they eat cacti instead. Typically, they feed on the flower and the fruits of cactus plants.
4. Ground Squirrels
The Ground squirrel is typically a rodent. It’s a gray to brown, medium-sized animal that prefers living in ground burrows.
Their tails are slender to full, and people sometimes confuse them with Chipmunks. However, there is a slight difference.
For the record, ground squirrels have strips at their lower backs. It’s more active during the day and loves to eat the fruit and seeds of the prickly pear cactus.
5. Javelinas/ Collared Peccary
Javelinas or Collared Peccary eat the fruits, the pads, and spikes of a Prickly Pear Cactus. It is among the desert mammals that eat the cacti to survive.
Their anatomy almost resembles that of pigs with a sharp spear. However, their body size is small compared to pigs, and they tend to have almost invisible tiny tails.
Javelinas have some physiological adaptations that easily allow them to find cacti in the desert. They have got sharp tusks underneath their snouts that allow them to dig the roots of cacti and other plants when hunting for food.
Peccary also gets their water from the juicy, fleshy pads. They are particularly not shy and won’t mind visiting your home searching for water.
Apart from the rodent type already mentioned, we have a list of common rodents who find pleasure eating cacti.
Also known as trade rats, the packrats are typically gray and average 13 inches long. Their common habitation is large nests made of plant parts and other objects.
You will spot the nests in rock crevices, vegetation, or cacti clumps. The rodents enjoy eating cacti flesh but are careful not to eat the spiky parts.
One of their physiological strategies is metabolizing oxalic acids found in high quantities in prickly pear cacti and most succulents. Other animals find the oxalic acid toxic.
The succulent plants such as cacti also meet the water needs of packrats.
Gophers add to the long list of burrowing rodents. Their habitation is underground burrows and storage compartments that they build.
Gophers feed on prickly pear cacti to quench their thirst. A typical example is the pocket gopher which loves living in short grass prairies.
Mice also enjoy eating the prickly cacti plant. Their favorite parts are the fruits, seeds, and young seedlings.
According to a study titled – Journal of Arid Environments, four mouse types – cactus mouse, pocket mouse, Nelson’s kangaroo rat, and the desert pocket mouse consumed an entire grassland of prickly pear cacti seedlings in five days.
Other mice types, such as the Merriam’s kangaroo rats and the brush mouse, eat the seeds and fruits of the prickly pear cactus.
Chipmunks are fast-moving rodents with black and white stripes. Twenty-four species are found in the desert and high mountain habitats spread across North America to Mexico.
In Utah, Chipmunk species, the Uinta and the Cliff chipmunk, consume seeds and fruits of the prickly pear cactus.
Another group of animals that eat prickly pear cactus is the desert birds. The birds eat cacti fruits and the insects that thrive on them. Some of these birds include:
10. Gila Woodpecker
The Gila woodpecker mainly feeds on insects and fruits. The bird prefers cherry-picking the fleshy parts of the Saguaro cactus using its beak to avoid consuming the thorns.
They also make cavities in cacti for nesting to raise their young ones.
11. Gilded Flicker Birds
The Gilded flicker is a desert bird species that lives inside the Saguaro cactus and eats its fruits. It’s typically brown but with some black and red marks.
Their wings are 11 inches long and 19 inches wide. Most of its population is found in the Sonoran desert.
Other Cacti-Eating Desert Animals
Bats love the shelter in cacti plants and usually take over cactus holes that birds have abandoned. The bats eat the ripening fruit of the cactus, which is their primary water source.
They also consume the nectar found in the Saguaro cactus.
Thanks to its robust digestive system, the Galapagos land Iguana is fond of cacti. It can eat the entire cactus plant without a fuss.
Before gulping down the cactus, the Iguana first gets rid of the thorns using its front feet.
The other reptile that eats the cactus is the tortoise. They eat the fruits and pads of the cacti plant.
14. Eastern Cotton Tail
The Eastern cottontail is a type of cottontail rabbit and is related to the Jackrabbit. They add to the list of plants that eat cacti and prefer the cactus base and fruit.
The Eastern Cottontail disperse seeds of cacti through their feces.
15. Harris’s Antelope Squirrels
Harris’s Antelope squirrels are a population of desert animals that love to eat the seeds and fruit of cacti to survive. The animals also love digging underneath the Prickly Pear Cactus and other desert shrubs.
The squirrels have mastered the art of eating the cactus plant without getting poked. You will spot them jumping on top of the cacti to look for a bite of their favorite meal.
They cool off in shady soils during intense desert heat.
The Coyotes wrap up our list of animals that eat cactus.
They are dog-like animals that appear carnivorous at first. Interestingly, they are omnivorous and eat almost anything from plants to small animals. One of these plants is the cacti.
Having a variety of food choices to pick from makes them easily survive the desert.
Our long list of cactus-eating animals proves that many animals indeed love feasting on these spikey plants.
These animals include camels, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, coyotes, and certain bird types like the Gila Woodpecker.
Cacti are a rich source of fluids to most desert animals while a great shelter source for many.
The most favored species is the Prickly Pear Cactus, followed by Saguaro Cactus.