Some cactus species are edible and have been part of various cultures’ cuisines for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They are considered vegetables in some cultures because of their fleshy pads. Some cacti even bear fruit, which people can also eat.
In the wild, cacti are also a source of food for certain animals. Their fleshy leaves, full of moisture, can provide for parched desert animals. Some of these animals may be obvious, such as the camel, but there are many other cactus-eating animals that might genuinely surprise you.
If you would like to learn which animals incorporate cactus into their diets, just keep reading.
What animals eat cactus?
Camels are naturally adapted to surviving in arid and semi-arid environments, which means they are accustomed to eating desert plants such as cacti. Their ability to consume the prickly pear cactus is unrivaled in the animal kingdom, and it is their distinctive physical characteristics that make this possible. Aside from prickly pear cacti, camels are also fond of the jumping cholla, which has numerous sharp barbs and spines and is found in southwestern deserts.
Camels are known to eat both the pads and the spines of cacti in their natural habitat. Their lips are thick and leathery, which helps alleviate any discomfort that may result from consuming the spines. This is the first reason they have an easier time eating cacti than most other animals.
The next helpful trait is the hard palate in the upper part of their mouth. When they chew the cactus, they use their teeth to grind it against this palate.
The pressure from the spines is further reduced by the rotating chewing motion of the camel’s mouth. This makes it easier for the tongue’s papillae to slide the cactus needles vertically down the camel’s throat, decreasing the likelihood of the upper digestive tract being poked in the process of eating.
Despite these advantages, it is still evident that eating cacti can be uncomfortable for camels, but they choose to put up with the discomfort in order to get to the fleshy, green parts of the plant.
Ground squirrels are gray-brown, medium-sized rodents that live in burrows under the ground. Their tails range from slender to full and bushy, and they are sometimes mistaken for chipmunks. There is, however, a slight distinction, in that ground squirrels have stripes on their lower backs but not on their heads, as chipmunks do.
The fruit and seeds of the prickly pear cactus are among their favorite foods, and they consume these in large quantities during the day.
The antelope squirrel lives in the desert and feeds on the fruit and seeds of cacti in order to survive. It can be found under prickly pear cacti and other shrubs endemic to the desert, where it likes to burrow to hide from predators and other dangers.
The antelope squirrel has learned, over many generations, how to eat the cactus without getting pricked by the spines. You can even see these critters jumping up and down for a few minutes, scoping the cactus for the perfect spot to nibble on.
The prickly pear cactus fruits, pads, and spikes are all consumed by the javelina, also known as the collared peccary – another desert mammal that feeds on cacti to survive.
Its anatomy is almost identical to that of a pig, but it also has sharp tusks. Its body size is smaller than a pig’s, and its tail is so small as to be almost imperceptible.
Javelinas have some physiological adaptations that allow them to find and eat cacti in the desert with relative ease. The sharp tusks beneath their snouts allow them to dig up the roots of cacti and other plants when hunting for food, which allows them access to more food, faster.
The juicy, fleshy pads of cacti provide them with water, as well. These animals are not particularly shy, and may even come to your house in search of water.
These burrowing rodents are herbivorous and eat a variety of plants. There are five different species of prairie dogs: white-tailed, black-tailed, Utah, Gunnison’s, and Mexican prairie dogs. When they are unable to find alternative food sources, they turn to cacti. They normally feed on the cactus’ base, flowers, and fruit.
The jackrabbit is a desert mammal that subsists on cacti and other succulent plants. Despite the fact that it is referred to as a rabbit, it is actually a member of the hare’s family.
Some of its adaptive characteristics for desert survival include long ears that can detect danger from great distances. In addition, the long ears help keep its body cool in the hot desert environment.
Jackrabbits forage for food in the open. Cacti and other desert vegetation, such as fruits and grasses, serve as their primary source of nutrition. They eat the fleshy part of the cactus, rather than the spikes.
They also help disseminate cactus seeds through their excrement.
Gophers are another type of burrowing rodent. They live in underground burrows where they care for their young; they also add extra compartments in their burrows to store their food.
One of this animal’s choice foods is the cactus; specifically the prickly pear, due to its high water content that alleviates the animal’s thirst in hot weather.
Chipmunks are also cactus-eating rodents. They are quick-moving animals with black and white stripes on their heads and bodies, and there are two dozen species of them in the high mountains and the deserts of North America.
The Uinta and the cliff chipmunk, both species found in Utah, eat the fruit and the seeds of the prickly pear cactus.
Yet another rodent that eats cacti is the mouse, which enjoys the seedlings, fruit and seeds of the prickly pear cactus.
The most common mouse species that eat cacti are the pocket mouse, cactus mouse and Nelson’s kangaroo rat. There is even a species of mouse called the desert pocket mouse that can clear an entire grassland’s worth of prickly pear seedlings in a matter of days.
The woodpecker mainly creates holes in the sides of cacti to burrow for insects in the plant’s stem, but sometimes it does also eat the cactus – specifically the fruit.
A favorite of the woodpecker is the saguaro cactus; the bird can even eat the fleshy parts of this cactus and not just its fruit.
Woodpeckers might also burrow into a cactus stem to create a little nook for nesting and raising their babies.
The flicker bird is a species of bird native to the desert. Just like the woodpecker, it likes to burrow deep into saguaro cacti, both for sustenance and to create a nesting space.
The bird, which is typically brown with black and red markings, also feeds on the fruit of the cactus rather than its other parts.
Flicker birds have a wingspan of up to 20 inches and are native to the Sonoran desert in Mexico and parts of Arizona and California.
There is a type of iguana called the Galapagos land iguana, which is also able to eat cacti because its stomach has evolved to handle the plant’s tough texture.
If you allow it to, this iguana can finish an entire cactus plant by itself. Smartly, it removes the thorns from the cactus before it starts chowing down.
Another cactus-loving reptile is the tortoise. There are tortoises that live in very dry regions that survive the long dry spells by eating the pads and fruit of cacti.
Bats that live in the desert might sometimes take up residence in the holes left behind by birds in saguaro cacti.
The bats not only use the towering cacti as hiding places from predators; they also feed on the flower nectar and fruit of these plants and are instrumental in their pollination.
Cacti can also be their main source of water if there is a drought.
When you think of coyotes, you might imagine carnivorous animals that would never be seen nibbling on plants, but you would be wrong. Coyotes are actually omnivorous.
Coyotes are dog-like animals that eat small animals as well as plants, and this includes cacti.
They have been observed to eat prickly pear cacti, from which they can also get a lot of their hydration.
Most cacti grow in the hottest, most arid places on earth. They are able to survive in these deserts thanks to their ability to store water in their bodies.
This makes cacti an essential source of food and water for many of the animals that live in these places. Not even the spines on a cactus can keep these starving animals away.
Cactus-loving animals include camels, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, reptiles, birds, and even omnivorous predators such as coyotes.
When the desert is dry and has had little recent rainfall, these animals will have no second thoughts about eating cacti, since they are aware of the nutritious and hydrating properties of their flesh and fruit.
Aside from providing these animals with food, cacti can be a source of protection and shelter for some of these animals, both from the elements and from predators.
The types of cacti most commonly consumed by animals are the saguaro cactus and the prickly pear cactus.
Image: istockphoto.com / Charles Peden