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Stretching from the southwestern United States deep into the Central Mexican Highlands, the Chihuahuan is one of the largest and most biologically diverse deserts in North America. A water crisis and other threats, however, are endangering the survival of wildlife and people living in this unique environment.

Sand dunes, Chihuahua Desert, Mexico. rel= © Edward Parker / WWF

Desert life
Extending from the southeastern US states of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas deep into central Mexico, the Chihuahuan Desert offers a kaleidoscope of textures and colours that shape its unique landscapes.
Pronghorn antelope, mule deer and grey fox roam the vast grasslands of the northern desert, while roadrunners, reptiles, jackrabbits and eagles live in the desert scrub.

Other desert wildlife includes the jaguar (Felis onca), collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), Mexican blackheaded snake (Tantilla atriceps) and greater earless lizard (Cophosaurus texanus).

A river runs through it

Little rain falls in the Chihuahuan, but the Rio Grande River - known as the Rio Bravo in Mexico - flows through the desert, providing a lifeline for all these animal and plants species, and the millions of people who live here.

While the river supports an exceptional array of wildlife, water withdrawals as a result of population growth and intensive agricultural activities are threatening the health of this all important cross-border ecosystem. Overgrazing, invasive species and mining are also taking their toll on the environment.

WWF is working on a number of projects to protect the Chihuahuan, which focus on restoring river habitats, and conserving grasslands and wetlands. Fostering collaboration on both sides of the US-Mexico border is key to successful conservation.
Bighorn sheep are found throughout the Chihuahuan Desert. 
© Ronald PETOCZ / WWF
Bighorn sheep are found throughout the Chihuahuan Desert.
© Ronald PETOCZ / WWF

The butterfly and the cactus

Each year, millions of monarch butterflies migrate from Canada and United States to winter in the forests of central Mexico. Along the way they help cross-pollinate thousands of plants, including numerous cacti species in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Monarch butterflies migrate each year from Canada to Mexico. © WWF

The Chihuahuan is home to about 345 of the world's 1,500 cactus species. The cacti and other plants are a crucial part of the desert ecosystem, providing shelter and food for birds, bats and other animals. Local people also rely on cacti for medicinal use, such as a traditional Mexican arthritis treatment.

Nursery-grown Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), Tucson, Arizona, US.

© WWF / Jo Benn

Where is the Chihuahuan Desert?
The Chihuahuan Desert is highlighted in pink below

View WWF Critical Regions of the World in a larger map

Facts & Figures

  • The Chihuahuan Desert covers an area of about 362,600km2 (or 140,000 square miles).
  • It is the third largest desert entirely within the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in North America, after the Great Basin Desert.
  • Chihuahuan is home to more than 130 mammals, 3,000 plant species (1,000 are endemic), over 500 bird species and 110 native freshwater fish.
  • Winters and nights are cool, while summer days can reach temperatures of up to 40ºC.