Caves provide shelter from the extreme conditions commonly encountered in the American Southwest. Wildlife may seek caves during the winter to escape the cold temperatures and snow, and may use caves during the summer in search of water, higher humidity, and to escape daytime heat on the surface. In other parts of the world (including the southeastern U.S.), vertebrates such as fish and salamanders may ultimately become adapted to living in the cave environment. These troglomorphic organisms ultimately become full-time residents of the underground realm.

Sometimes an animal simply wanders into a cave, becomes disoriented and cannot find its way to the surface. When this occurs, the animal ultimately dies. It is indeed unfortunate for the animal. However, from death comes life — the animal's carcass then provides an important source of nutrients to this otherwise largely nutrient-starved environment.

Arizona — Wildlife species known to use Arizona caves include owls (e.g. barn owls, Tyto alba), javelina (Tayassu tajacu), porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum), packrats (or woodrats; Neotoma spp.), coyotes (Canus latrans), ringtail cats (Bassariscus astutus), western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox), Panamint rattlesnakes (Crotalus mitchellii stephensi), and tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum). At Kartchner Caverns State Park, researchers studying bats observed a ringtail cat exit the cave as they were counting the bats exiting the roost. They determined the ringtail was hunting bats. In Grand Canyon National Park, packrats, brush mice (Peromyscus boylii), porcupines and ringtail cats have been identified within caves. Refer to the “SBSC Cave Ecological Research” page for more information on wildlife use of caves.

New Mexico — From a six cave study of the Sinkhole Flat region, Eddy County, New Mexico, six vertebrate species were reported including great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), barn owl (Tyto alba), a Cricetid rodent (species unknown) and the western diamondback rattle snake (Crotalus atrox). The mountain treefrog (Hyla eximia) was observed within one lava tube in El Malpais National Monument. Because caves are sheltered environments, they often retain higher humidity than the surface. We suspect this frog was escaping the hot, dry, surface conditions by seeking more favorable conditions underground.

Utah — No information on cave use by other wildlife species is available.

Colorado — No information on cave use by other wildlife species is available.

Nevada — In Great Basin National Park, park personnel trapped deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) and cliff chipmunks (Tamias dorsalis) within Lehman Cave. They also suggested packrats probably occurred in the cave, however the installation of lights for tourism may have caused them to abandon the area.

Jut will revise this page as more information on other wildlife use of southwest caves becomes available. If you have information you'd like to contribute on this topic, please contact him.