The seemingly endless variations of elevation, exposure, and moisture allow for an astonishing range of plant and animal communities. The Canyon also acts as a barrier to many nonflying creatures who live on just one side of the Colorado River or only in the Inner Gorge. Some mammals evolved into separate subspecies on each rim. The Abert's squirrel, though common in the Southwest, lives within the park only on the South Rim. This squirrel has tufted ears and a body and tail that are mostly gray with white undersides. The shy Kaibab squirrel, easily identified by an all-white tail and tufted ears, lives only on the North Rim. It probably evolved from Abert's squirrels that crossed the Colorado River thousands of years ago.
Common ravens fly at all elevations in the Canyon and in every season. You may wonder how they manage under the hot summer sun with their jet-black color, but the shiny feathers actually reflect much of the sunlight. The California condor has made a comeback to the Canyon, thanks to breeding and release programs. You may see them using their nine-foot wingspan to ride the thermals.
You'll find dense forests of spruce and fir and groves of quaking aspen on the Kaibab Plateau of the North Rim, mostly above 8,200 feet. Common trees include Engelmann and blue spruce, Douglas fir (not a true fir), white and subalpine fir, aspen, and mountain ash. Lush meadows, dotted with wildflowers in summer, spread out in shallow valleys at the higher elevations.
Animals of the spruce-fir forest include mule deer, mountain lion, porcupine, red and Kaibab squirrels, Uinta chipmunk, long-tailed vole, and northern pocket gopher. Birds you might see include turkey, great horned owl, saw-whet owl, broad-tailed hummingbird, hairy woodpecker, hermit thrush, Clark's nutcracker, Steller's jay, and mountain bluebird.
Ponderosa Pine Forest
Stands of tall ponderosas grow between elevations of 7,000 and 8,000 feet on both rims. Mature forests tend to be open, allowing in sunlight for Gambel oak, New Mexican locust, mountain mahogany, greenleaf manzanita, cliffrose, wildflowers, and grasses.
Animals and birds found here include most of those resident in the spruce-fir forests. The Abert's squirrel, though common in the Southwest, lives within the park only on the South Rim. This squirrel has tufted ears and a body and tail that are mostly gray with white undersides. The shy Kaibab squirrel, easily identified by an all-white tail and tufted ears, lives only on the North Rim. It probably evolved from Abert's squirrels that crossed the Colorado River long ago, perhaps during the Pleistocene epoch.
These smaller trees abound in drier and more exposed places between elevations of 4,000 and 8,000 feet. Their neighbors commonly include broadleaf yucca, cliffrose, rabbit brush, Mormon tea, sagebrush, fernbrush, serviceberry, and Apache plume.
Mule deer, mountain lion, coyote, gray fox, desert cottontail, Stephen's woodrat, pinyon mouse, rock squirrel, cliff chipmunk, lizards, and snakes (including rattlesnakes) make their homes here. Birds include mourning dove, plain titmouse, Bewick's wren, black-throated gray warbler, and pinyon and scrub jays.
Except near permanent water, the low-desert country below 4,500 feet cannot support trees. Instead, you'll find such hardy plants as blackbrush, Utah agave, narrowleaf yucca, various cacti, desert thorn, Mormon tea, four-wing saltbush, and snakeweed.
Animals include bighorn sheep, black-tailed jackrabbit, spotted skunk, desert woodrat, antelope ground squirrel, and canyon mouse. Most reptiles hole up during the day, though lizards seem to tolerate higher temperatures than snakes. Chuckwalla, spiny and collared lizards, common king snake, whipsnake, and the Grand Canyon rattlesnake live in this part of the Canyon. The shy Grand Canyon or pink rattlesnake, a subspecies of the western rattlesnake, lives nowhere else. Birds of the desert scrub have to either look elsewhere for nesting trees or choose a spot in cliffs or on the ground. Species you might see include common raven, turkey vulture, golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, rock and canyon wrens, and black-throated sparrow. You'll probably hear the song of the water-loving canyon wren without ever seeing him; he sings in an unforgettable descending scale.
Until 1963, seasonal floods of the Colorado River ripped away most vegetation below the high-water mark. Then, when the Glen Canyon Dam was completed upstream, tamarisk (an exotic species originally from the Arabian deserts) speeded up its takeover of formerly barren beaches. Native cattail, coyote willow, and arrowweed now thrive too. Seeps and springs support luxuriant plant growth and supply water for desert wildlife.
Beaver, river otter, ringtail cat, raccoon, deer mouse, spotted sandpiper, blue grosbeak, Lucy's warbler, Woodhouse's toad, and the tree lizard make their homes near the streams. Fremont cottonwood trees in the tributaries provide welcome shade for overheated hikers. The cold, clear waters that flow from Glen Canyon Dam have upset breeding patterns of the seven native fish species; they now spawn in warmer waters at the mouths of the Little Colorado River and Havasu Creek. Rainbow trout and 10 other species have been introduced.
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