The Sonoran Desert is a North American desert and ecoregion that covers large parts of the southwestern United States, as well as the northwestern Mexican states of Sonora, Baja California, and Baja California Sur. Despite being the hottest desert in both Mexico and the United States, it is the most biologically diverse desert in the world. It has an area of 260,000 square kilometers (100,000 sq mi).
In phytogeography, the Sonoran Desert is within the Sonoran Floristic province of the Madrean Region of southwestern North America, part of the Holarctic realm of the northern Western Hemisphere. The desert contains a variety of unique endemic plants and animals, notably, the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) and organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi).
The Sonoran Desert is clearly distinct from nearby deserts (e.g., the Great Basin, Mojave, and Chihuahuan deserts) because it provides subtropical warmth in winter and two seasons of rainfall (in contrast, for example, to the Mojave's dry summers and cold winters). This creates an extreme contrast between aridity and moisture.
Many plants not only survive, but thrive in the harsh conditions of the Sonoran Desert. Many have evolved to have specialized adaptations to the desert climate. The Sonoran Desert's bi-seasonal rainfall pattern results in more plant species than any other desert in the world. The Sonoran Desert includes plant genera and species from the agave family, palm family, cactus family, legume family, and numerous others.
The Sonoran is the only place in the world where the famous saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) grows in the wild. Cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), beavertail (Opuntia basilaris), hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), fishhook (Ferocactus wislizeni), prickly pear (Opuntia spp.), nightblooming cereus (Peniocereus spp.), and organ pipe (Stenocereus thurberi) are other taxa of cacti found here. Cactus provides food and homes to many desert mammals and birds, with showy flowers in reds, pinks, yellows, and whites, blooming most commonly from late March through June, depending on the species and seasonal temperatures.
Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and bur sage (Ambrosia dumosa) dominate valley floors. Indigo bush (Psorothamnus fremontii) and Mormon tea are other shrubs that may be found. Wildflowers of the Sonoran Desert include desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa), desert sunflower (Geraea canescens), and evening primroses.
Ascending from the valley up bajadas, various subtrees such as velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), palo verde (Parkinsonia florida), desert ironwood (Olneya tesota), desert willow (Chilopsis linearis ssp. arcuata), and crucifixion thorn (Canotia holacantha) are common, as well as multi-stemmed ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). Shrubs found at higher elevations include whitethorn acacia (Acacia constricta), fairy duster, and jojoba. In the desert subdivisions found on Baja California, cardon cactus, elephant tree, and boojum tree occur.
The California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) is found in the Colorado Desert section of the Sonoran Desert, the only native palm in California, among many other introduced Arecaceae genera and species. It is found at spring-fed oases, such as in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.
Three hundred fifty bird species, 20 amphibian species, over 100 reptile species, 30 native fish species, over 1000 native bee species, and more than 2,000 native plant species can be found in the desert area. The Sonoran Desert area southeast of Tucson and near the Mexican border is vital habitat for the only population of jaguars living within the United States. The Colorado River Delta was once an ecological hotspot within the Sonoran desert due to the Colorado river in this otherwise dry area, but the delta has been greatly reduced in extent due to the damming and use of the river upstream. Species that have higher heat tolerance are able to thrive in the conditions of the Sonoran Desert. One such insect species that has evolved a means to thrive in this environment is Drosophila mettleri, a Sonoran Desert fly. This fly contains a specialized P450 detoxification system that enables it to nest in the cool region of exudate moistened soil. Thus, the fly is one of few that can tolerate the high desert temperatures and successfully reproduce.