Great Basin Desert

The Great Basin Desert is part of the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Range. The desert is a geographical region that largely overlaps the Great Basin shrub steppe defined by the World Wildlife Fund, and the Central Basin and Range ecoregion defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and United States Geological Survey. It is a temperate desert with hot, dry summers and snowy winters.[4] The desert spans a large part of the state of Nevada, and extends into western Utah, eastern California, and Idaho. The desert is one of the four biologically defined deserts in North America, in addition to the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan Deserts.[5]

Basin and range topography characterizes the desert: wide valleys bordered by parallel mountain ranges generally oriented north-south. There are more than 33 peaks within the desert with summits higher than 9,800 feet (3,000 m), but valleys in the region are also high, most with elevations above 3,900 feet (1,200 m). The biological communities of the Great Basin Desert vary according to altitude: from low salty dry lakes, up through rolling sagebrush valleys, to pinyon-juniper forests. The significant variation between valleys and peaks has created a variety of habitat niches, which has in turn led to many small, isolated populations of genetically unique plant and animal species throughout the region. According to Grayson,[5] more than 600 species of vertebrates live in the floristic Great Basin, which has a similar areal footprint to the ecoregion. Sixty-three of these species have been identified as species of conservation concern due to contracting natural habitats (for example, Centrocercus urophasianus, Vulpes macrotis, Dipodomys ordii, and Phrynosoma platyrhinos).[6][7]

The ecology of the desert varies across geography, also. The desert’s high elevation and location between mountain ranges influences regional climate: the desert formed by the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada that blocks moisture from the Pacific Ocean, while the Rocky Mountains create a barrier effect that restricts moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.[8] Different locations in the desert have different amounts of precipitation, depending on the strength of these rain shadows. The environment is influenced by Pleistocene lakes that dried after the last ice age: Lake Lahontan and Lake Bonneville. Each of these lakes left different amounts of salinity and alkalinity.

Central Basin and Range
Great Basin shrub steppe
Basin range province
Central Basin and Range from space
(central-west Nevada region, view due-south)
Central Basin and Range ecoregion
Map of the Great Basin Desert, as defined by the USGS[1]
BiomeNorth American Desert
BordersNorthern Basin and Range (ecoregion) (80), Sierra Nevada (ecoregion) (5) and Wasatch and Uinta Mountains (ecoregion) (19)
Bird species204[2]
Mammal species105[2]
CountryUnited States
StatesNevada, Utah, California, Idaho and Oregon
Habitat loss90%[3]

Definition and boundaries

Great Basin Ecoregions
Ecoregions as currently delineated by the Environmental Protection Agency[9] and World Wildlife Fund[3]

The Great Basin Desert is defined by its animals and plants,[4] yet the boundaries are unclear.[10]

Scientists have different definitions of the Great Basin Desert, which are often defined by negatives. J. Robert Macey defines the "Great Basin scrub desert as lacking creosote bush."[11] The Great Basin Desert includes several arid basins lacking Larrea tridentata (chaparral) such as the "Chalfant, Hammil, Benton, and Queen valleys," as well as all but the southeast portion of the Owens Valley. Conversely, the "Panamint, Saline, and Eureka valleys" have creosote bush, unlike the Deep Springs Valley which includes part of the Great Basin scrub desert.[11]

The study and definition of ecoregions can also indicate the boundaries of the Great Basin Desert. In 1987, J.M. Omernik defined a desert ecoregion between the Sierra Nevada and Wasatch Range, naming it the "Northern Basin and Range" ecoregion.[12] In 1999, the U.S. EPA renamed the "Northern Basin and Range" to "Central Basin and Range" and the "(Snake River) High Desert" to the "Northern Basin and Range".[13][a] The World Wildlife Fund adopted the Basin and Range ecoregions from Omernik,[14] but excised a small region of high-altitude areas which contain Holocene refugia,[15] from the former "Northern Basin and Range" ecoregion and renamed it the "Great Basin Shrub Steppe".[3][14] Although the EPA had refined the boundaries of the Central Basin and Range ecoregion by 2003,[13][b] when USGS geographer Christopher Soulard wrote his reports on the region, his maps used the 1999 boundary for the "Central Basin and Range",[1] which is essentially the same as the "Great Basin Shrub Steppe".[c] He states that the Great Basin Desert is "encompassed within" that area.[1]

This article describes the general ecology of the region, including the high-elevation areas, and does not rely on minor differences in the definitions of the ecoregion or desert. See Great Basin montane forests for more specific details on the high-elevation ecoregion.


The climate of the Great Basin desert is characterized by extremes: hot, dry summers and cold, snowy winters; frigid alpine ridges and warm, windy valleys; days over 90 °F (32 °C) followed by nights near 40 °F (4 °C). This is the climate of the high desert.[17]

Rainshadow copy
A rain shadow

The Great Basin desert climate begins with the Sierra Nevada in eastern California. Rising 14,000 feet (4,300 m) above sea level, this mountain range casts a large rain shadow over the desert. Weather coming in from the Pacific Ocean quickly loses its moisture as rain and snow as it is forced up and over the steep mountains. By the time it reaches the east side of the mountains, little moisture is left to bring to the desert. The rain shadow effect is more pronounced closer to the Sierra Nevada, with yearly precipitation in the Great Basin desert averaging 9 inches (230 mm) in the west and 12 inches (300 mm) inches in the east.[17] Moisture that manages to reach the ecoregion tends to precipitate as rain and snow in higher elevations, primarily over the region’s long, parallel mountains.[10] Ultimately, any precipitation that falls within the desert fails to drain either to the Atlantic Ocean or to the Pacific Ocean (thus the term "basin"). Instead, precipitation drains to ephemeral or saline lakes via streams, or disappears via evaporation or absorption into the soil.[5][6] The desert is the coldest of the deserts in North America.[5]

On any given day, the weather across the Great Basin desert is variable. The region is extremely mountainous, and the temperatures vary depending on the elevation. In general, temperature decreases 3.6 degrees F for every 1000 feet gained in elevation. This translates to as much as a 30 °F (17 °C) difference between mountain tops and valley floors on the same day at the same time. In the heat of summer this difference can be even more pronounced. With some exceptions, wind generally increases with elevation or altitude, and thus strong winds are often encountered on mountain tops and ridges.[17]

This dry climate and rugged topography proves too harsh for many plant and animal species; however, genetic adaptations to these conditions have led to reasonably high species richness within the ecoregion.[6]

The Great Basin National Park, located in a central part of the Great Basin desert, provides perhaps the best example of a typical climate for the region.

Fallon's climate is typical of lower elevations in the western part of the Great Basin desert. Located in the Forty Mile Desert, precipitation is rare, and summers are hot, though temperatures are more moderate than those in deserts like the Mojave and Sonoran, due to the region's higher elevation and latitude. Winters in this section of the basin are still cold, however.

The Great Salt Lake Desert, located near the north-east corner of the Great Basin desert, is an excellent example of a cold desert climate. Although still arid, it is worthy to note that this portion of the desert receives more precipitation than the similar playas and salt pans on the western edge of the Great Basin desert.

Biological communities

The pattern of 'basin and range' with adjacent basins and ranges in this region results in incredible biological diversity. Climate, elevation, soil type, and many anthropogenic variables greatly influence the diversity and distribution of shrubland, grassland, and woodland communities in the desert. Across the high desert there are numerous sub-climates correlating to the varied elevations. Heading from the valley bottoms to the mountain peaks, one will encounter constantly changing combinations of plant and animal species making up some 200 distinct biological communities. These communities can be generally grouped into six general communities or “life zones”.[20]

Shadscale zone

In the lower valley bottoms, where mountain run off evaporates to create saline soils, is the shadscale zone. Plants in this community are adapted to living with very little precipitation, high heat, and saline conditions. The amount of water and the soil type in any one area will determine exactly which plants will live there. Certain areas of the valley floors may harbor no life. These parched areas that flood periodically are called playas. On the shores of the playas, shadscale is the dominant plant, but is kept company by iodine bush,[6] saltgrass,[6] spiny hopsage, winterfat, four-winged saltbrush, and green rabbitbrush. Trees are not found in this community. Big greasewood is the dominant shrub in more saline areas or where the water table is high. These shrubs and associated grasses typically produce abundant small seeds that are harvested by rodents and insects.[20] The soil salinity and lack of moisture in this zone is not very conducive to most agriculture; however, livestock grazing and grain farming have historically contributed to a decline in the already scattered vegetation.[6][21]

Sagebrush zone

Virgin Peak approach 3
Sagebrush in the Virgin Mountains, Nevada

The drop in soil salinity and increase in moisture as elevation increases leads to a transition to sagebrush (Artemisia) and grasses just above the shadscale zone. This expanse, called the sagebrush zone, constitutes the largest amount of land in the desert (38.7 percent) and is dominated by big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) shrubland.[10] The sagebrush zone occurs on the lower mountain slopes and alluvial fans and bajadas.[20] Areas in this zone that have wetter and less saline soils are dominated by big sagebrush. Low sagebrush or black sagebrush dominate areas with steep rocky slopes and shallow soils. Introduced annual grasses such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and halogeton (Halogeton glomeratus) also characterize this zone, although native bunchgrasses once thrived amongst sagebrush. Historical fire suppression, adjusted fire frequency following the introduction of annual grasses, and widespread livestock grazing have contributed to contraction of the sagebrush zone.[22] According to Noss,[23] 99 percent of the sagebrush-grass zone has been damaged by livestock, with major damage in 30 percent of the zone.[6] Other shrubs commonly found in the sagebrush zone are rabbitbrush, bitterbrush, snowberry and Mormon tea (ephedra).[20]

Pinyon-Juniper community

2013-07-04 15 06 01 Singleleaf Pinyon-Utah Juniper woodland along Interstate 80 east of Wells in Elko County in Nevada
Pinyon-Juniper woodland in Elko County, Nevada

Continuing up in elevation, you reach the pinyon-juniper community. The main plants in this community are singleleaf pinyon pine and Utah juniper, often with a sagebrush and bitterbrush understory.[10] Other species of junipers also occur in this zone, including Juniperus communis, and Juniperus occidentalis.

The elevational range of this zone varies, but it is usually found between 6,000 and 8,000 feet (1,800 and 2,400 m), with lower limits determined by lack of moisture and the upper limits determined by temperature. The pinyon-juniper community consists of short evergreen trees that rarely grow over 20 feet in height.[20] This zone of dense vegetation, made possible by thermal inversions and increased precipitation, is important to a wide variety of isolated animals that rely on this vegetation interface for survival (for example, Eutamias palmeri).[6][10]

The trees are widely spaced and have an understory of a mixture of shrubs and herbaceous plants, often with nearly bare ground. These characteristics have led this zone to be named the “pygmy forest” by many scientists. The lower end of this zone is dominated by juniper; the middle is a combination of both species, and the upper end is dominated by pinyon.[20]

Montane community

The taller ranges of the Great Basin desert have a montane community. Due to the great distances created by basins between these small forest habitats, various rock substrates, and local climates, montane forests are tremendously varied across the desert.[20]

Isolated from one mountain range to the next, montane communities in the region have long individual histories, each one affected differently by chance factors of migration over vast expanses of desert. Smaller communities are also vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change and to genetic drift.[20]

White fir, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pines are found in the middle elevations of some mountain ranges, while limber pine, subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, and bristlecone pines occupy the higher elevations, continuing to the upper tree line. Mountain mahogany often dominates drier, warmer south-facing slopes.[20] Pure stands of aspen are also common in this community.[10]

The bristlecone pine is an important species that is indicative of the Great Basin desert. Bristlecones live a long time, some for thousands of years. The harsh areas they occupy are often devoid of other plant life, so there is little competition and reduced risk of fire. The trees grow very slowly, producing very dense, disease-resistant wood. These factors contribute to the bristlecone’s long life.[20]

Alpine community

White Mountain CA
Alpine tundra at White Mountain in California

Some mountain ranges in the Great Basin desert are high enough to have an alpine community; a community of low growing plants above the treeline. Treeline is generally found above 10,000 feet (3,000 m) in the Great Basin desert, moving downslope with higher latitudes. The plants that grow above treeline are separated from other such areas by miles of foothills and valleys. This “island” phenomenon produces many endemic species - species that have evolved while isolated on a particular mountain peak or range and are found only in that one place. Grasses, sedges, low perennial herbs, and wildflowers grow above treeline.[20]

Riparian community

Trout Creek in southeastern Oregon
Riparian habitat in the Trout Creek Mountains of southeastern Oregon

The riparian communities of the Great Basin desert cut across all elevations and life zones. In the Great Basin desert surface water is rapidly lost by evaporation or infiltration. However, areas around streams where plant life is abundant constitute a riparian area. Water-loving plants like willow, narrowleaf cottonwood, choke cherry, wild rose, and aspen are found along these wet areas. The willow has a spreading root network that allows it to reach all around for water and it also helps streams by slowing erosion.[20] These plants provide wood for beavers. In this community, silver buffaloberry often provides shelter for North American porcupines.[10]


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines its Central Basin and Range ecoregion as Level III: it is at the third level of a tree of ecoregions that cover North America. It further defines sub-ecoregions at Level IV, which describe differences in the ecoregion at different locations.[9] Below is a list of a number of the Level IV ecoregions. The low-elevation ecoregions lie in the Great Basin shrub steppe, while the high-elevation ones lie in the Great Basin montane forests (as defined by the WWF).[15]

Central Basin and Range
Level IV ecoregions
13a Salt Deserts
13b Shadscale-Dominated Saline Basins
13c Sagebrush Basins and Slopes
13d Woodland and Shrub-Covered Low Mountains
13e Carbonate High Elevation Mountains
13g Wetlands
13h Lahontan and Tonopah Playas
13j Lahontan Salt Shrub Basin
13k Lahontan Sagebrush Slopes
13l Lahontan Uplands
13m Upper Humboldt Plains
13n Mid-Elevation Ruby Mountains
13o High Elevation Ruby Mountains
13p Carbonate Sagebrush Valleys
13q Carbonate Woodland
13r Central Nevada High Valleys
13s Central Nevada Mid-Slope Woodland and Brushland
13t Central Nevada Bald Mountains
13u Tonopah Basin
13v Tonopah Sagebrush Foothills
13w Tonopah Uplands
13x Sierra Nevada-Influenced Ranges
13y Sierra Nevada-Influenced High Elevation Mountains
13z Upper Lahontan Basin
13aa Sierra Nevada-Influenced Semiarid Hills and Basins

Salt deserts

The Salt desert ecoregion is composed of nearly level playas, salt flats, mud flats, and saline lakes. These features are characteristic of the Bonneville Basin: they have a higher salt content than those of the Lahontan and Tonopah playas ecoregion, below. Water levels and salinity varies from year-to-year, during dry periods, salt encrustation and wind erosion occur. Vegetation is mostly absent, although scatted salt-tolerant plants, such as pickleweed, iodinebush, black greasewood, and inland saltgrass occur. Soils are not arable and there is very limited grazing potential. The salt deserts provide wildlife habitat and serve some recreational, military, and industrial uses.[24]

Shadscale-dominated saline basins

The Shadscale-dominated saline basins ecoregion is arid, internally drained, and gently sloping to nearly flat. These basins are in, or are characteristic of the Bonneville Basin: they are higher in elevation and colder in winter than the Lahontan salt shrub basin ecoregion to the west. Light-colored soils with high salt and alkali content occur and are dry for extended periods. The saltbush vegetation common to this ecoregion has a higher tolerance for extremes in temperature, aridity, and salinity than big sagebrush, which dominates ecoregion 13c at somewhat higher elevation. The basins in Nevada, in contrast to those in Utah, are more constricted in area and are more influenced by nearby mountain ranges with extensive carbonate rock exposures, which provide water by percolation through the limestone substrate to surface as valley springs. Isolated valley drainages support endemic fish, such as the Newark Valley tui chub.[24]

Lahontan and Tonopah playas

Kluft-photo-Black-Rock-Point-in-mirage-June-2004-Img 1188
A playa in the Black Rock Desert

The nearly level and often barren Lahontan and Tonopah playas contain mudflats, alkali flats, and intermittent saline lakes, such as the Black Rock Desert, Carson Sink, and Sarcobatus Flat. Marshes, remnant lakes and playas are all that remain of Pleistocene Lake Lahontan, which was once the size of Lake Erie. Playas occur in the lowest elevation of the Lahontan Basin, and represent the terminus or sink of rivers running east of the Sierra Nevada. The playas fill with seasonal runoff from the surrounding mountains, providing habitat for migratory birds. Black greasewood or four-winged saltbush may grow around the perimeter in the transition to the salt shrub community, where they often stabilize areas of low sand dunes. This ecoregion has limited grazing potential. Windblown salt dust from exposed playas may affect upland soils and vegetation. The Lahontan and Tonopah playas are important as wildlife habitat, as well as for recreational and military uses.[24]

Lahontan salt shrub basin

The Lahontan salt shrub basin is an expansive dry plain that was once below Pleistocene Lake Lahontan. The Lahontan Basin, compared to the Bonneville Basin to the east, is lower in elevation and warmer in winter. Although there is a direct connection to the south to the Mojave Desert, winters are cold enough in this ecoregion to discourage the northward dispersal of Mojavean species into the Lahontan Basin. In addition to shadscale, other salt-tolerant shrubs, such as Shockley's desert-thorn and Bailey greasewood, cover the lower basin slopes. These shrubs distinguish the Lahontan salt shrub basin and the Tonopah Basin from other Nevada salt shrub ecoregions. Sand dunes may occur where windblown sand accumulates against a barrier; dune complexes support a specialized plant community and diverse small mammal populations. The Carson and Truckee Rivers, originating in the Sierra Nevada, provide water for irrigated farming. Riparian corridors along these rivers support the only trees found in this ecoregion.[24]

Lahontan sagebrush slopes

2011-08-04 20 00 00 Susie Fire in the Adobe Range west of Elko Nevada
Lightning-sparked wildfires are common occurrences in the Great Basin desert.

Hills, alluvial fans, and low mountains comprise the Lahontan sagebrush slopes ecoregion. These areas are rock controlled and their soils lack the fine lacustrine sediments that are found in lower parts of the Lahontan Basin. Because moisture increases and alkalinity decreases with elevation, the shrub community grades from the greasewood-shadscale community on the basin floor, to a shrub community dominated by Wyoming big sagebrush and the endemic Lahontan sagebrush at higher elevations. Understory grasses increase the productivity towards the northeast, outside the rain shadow influence of the Sierra Nevada. The low hills and mountains of the Lahontan Basin experience frequent summer lightning and fire. The introduced cheatgrass tends to replace the shrub community and provides fuel for recurrent fires.[24]

Lahontan uplands

The Lahontan uplands are restricted to the highest elevations of the mountains ranges within the Lahontan salt shrub basin. Slopes vary in elevation from 6,400 to 8,800 feet (2,000 to 2,700 m) and are covered in sagebrush, grasses, and scattered Utah juniper. Pinyon grows with juniper on the Stillwater Range and on Fairview Peak in the southeast portion of the Lahontan Basin, but it is otherwise absent from this ecoregion. Low sagebrush and black sagebrush grow to the mountaintops above the woodland zone. Cool-season grasses, including bluebunch wheatgrass, dominate the understory in the north, but are replaced by warm-season grasses, such as Indian ricegrass, in the south.[24]

Upper Humboldt Plain

2013-07-04 15 37 14 Sagebrush-steppe along U.S. Route 93 in central Elko County in Nevada
Sagebrush in the Upper Humboldt Plains (13m) ecoregion

The Upper Humboldt Plains ecoregion is an area of rolling plains punctuated by occasional buttes and low mountains. It is mostly underlain by volcanic ash, rhyolite, and tuffaceous rocks. Low sagebrush is common in extensive areas of shallow, stony soil, as are cool season grasses, such as bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue, and Sandberg bluegrass. The ecoregion is wetter and cooler than other Nevada ecoregions in its elevation range. The ecoregion is transitional to the Northern Basin and Range ecoregion that spans the Nevada-Oregon border. However, as in the warmer Lahontan Basin to the west, lightning fires are common and a post-fire monoculture of cheatgrass tends to replace the native grasses and shrubs. Grazing is the major land use, though there is some agriculture near the Humboldt River.[24]

Carbonate Sagebrush Valleys

The basins and semi-arid uplands of the Carbonate Sagebrush Valleys surround the carbonate ranges of eastern Nevada. These valleys are underlain by limestone or dolomite. The combination of summer moisture and a limestone or dolomite substrate affects regional vegetation, particularly in terms of species dominance and elevational distribution. The substrate favors shrubs, such as black sagebrush and winterfat, that can tolerate shallow soil. Even in alluvial soils, root growth may be limited by a hardpan or caliche layer formed by carbonates leaching through the soil and accumulating. As a result, shrub cover is sparse in contrast to other sagebrush-covered ecoregions in Nevada. The grass understory grades from a dominance of cool season grasses, such as bluebunch wheatgrass, in the north, to warm season grasses, such as blue grama (an indicator of summer rainfall) in the south.[24]

Central Nevada high valleys

The Central Nevada high valleys ecoregion contains sagebrush-covered rolling valleys that are generally over 5,000 feet (1,500 m) in elevation. Alluvial fans spilling from the surrounding mountain ranges fill the valleys, often leaving little intervening flat ground. Wyoming big sagebrush and associated grasses are common on the flatter areas, and black sagebrush dominates on the volcanic hills and alluvial fans. This ecoregion tends to have lower species diversity than other sagebrush ecoregions, because of its aridity and isolation from more species-rich areas. Saline playas may occur on available flats. Less shadscale and fewer associated shrubs surround these playas than in other, lower more arid ecoregions in the west, including the Lahontan salt shrub ecoregion and the Tonopah Basin ecoregion. Valleys with permanent water support endemic fish populations, such as the Monitor Valley speckled dace.[24]

Central Nevada mid-slope woodland and brushland

The Central Nevada mid-slope woodland and brushland ecoregion at 6,500 to 8,000 feet (2,000 to 2,400 m) of elevation is analogous in altitudinal range to other woodland areas in Nevada. However, continuous woodland is not as prevalent on the mountains of central Nevada as in other woodland ecoregions, such as ecoregions 13d and 13q. Pinyon-juniper grows only sparsely through the shrub layer due to combined effects of past fire, logging, and local climate factors, including lack of summer rain and the pattern of winter cold air inversions. Where extensive woodlands do exist, understory diversity tends to be very low, especially in closed canopy areas. Areas of black and Wyoming big sagebrush grade upward into mountain big sagebrush and curlleaf mountain-mahogany, which straddles the transition between this mid-elevation brushland and the mountain brush zone of the higher Central Nevada Bald Mountains.[24]

Central Nevada Bald Mountains

The Central Nevada Bald Mountains are dry and mostly treeless. Although they rise only 100 miles (160 km) east of the Sierra Nevada, they lack Sierra species due to the dry conditions. These barren-looking mountains are covered instead by dense mountain brush that is dominated by mountain big sagebrush, serviceberry, snowberry, and low sagebrush. They contrast with the High-elevation Carbonate Mountains to the east, where the mountain brush zone is too narrow to be mapped as a separate ecoregion. Scattered groves of curlleaf mountain-mahogany and aspen in moister microsites grow above the shrub layer. A few scattered limber or bristlecone pines grow on ranges that exceed 10,000 feet (3,000 m). The Toiyabe Range (west of Big Smoky Valley) is high enough to have an alpine zone, but lacks a suitable substrate to retain snowmelt moisture. The isolation of these "sky islands" has led to the development of many rare and endemic plant species.[24]

Map of ecoregions of central Nevada

Tonopah Basin

The Tonopah Basin lies in the transition between the Great Basin Desert and the more southerly Mojave Desert. The basin shows varying characteristics of both deserts. The west side of the Tonopah Basin is a continuation of the Lahontan Basin, while the lower and hotter Pahranagat Valley on the east side is more like the Mojave Desert. Similar to basins further north, shadscale and associated arid land shrubs cover broad rolling valleys, hills, and alluvial fans. However, unlike the Lahontan salt shrub basin and Upper Lahontan basin, the shrubs often co-dominate in highly diverse mosaics. The shrub understory includes warm-season grasses, such as Indian ricegrass and galleta grass. Endemic fish species, including the Railroad Valley tui chub, Pahranagat roundtail chub, Railroad Valley springfish, and the White River springfish are found in valleys with perennial water.[24]

Endangered species

The topography of the Great Basin desert (“island” mountain tops separated from one another by vast expanses of desert valleys) renders it vulnerable to extinctions. Populations that occupy the high peaks are isolated from one another; therefore, they cannot interbreed. Small populations are more vulnerable to the forces of extinction - generally small populations have less genetic diversity and therefore a lesser ability to adapt to changing conditions. Groundwater pumping, road and home construction, grazing, and mining are all activities that alter habitat; as more habitat is affected, the threat of extinction increases. The Great Basin desert is home to many threatened and endangered species:[20]

See also


  1. ^ The map on this website illustrates the boundaries of the "(Snake River) High Desert", which had been split off earlier from Ormernik's "Snake River Basin/High Desert".[13]
  2. ^ The Northern Basin and Range ecoregion was extended further east, contracting the eastern portion of the Central Basin and Range to the south, separating it from the Snake River Plain ecoregion.[16]
  3. ^ Both areas correspond to Omernik’s Northern Basin and Range ecoregion.


  1. ^ a b c Soulard, Christopher E. (2012). "20. Central Basin and Range Ecoregion" (PDF). In Sleeter, Benjamin M.; Wilson, Tamara S.; Acevedo, William (eds.). Status and Trends of Land Change in the Western United States—1973 to 2000. U.S. Geological Survey. Professional Paper 1794–A.
  2. ^ a b c Hoekstra, J. M.; Molnar, J. L.; Jennings, M.; Revenga, C.; Spalding, M. D.; Boucher, T. M.; Robertson, J. C.; Heibel, T. J.; Ellison, K. (2010). Molnar, J. L. (ed.). The Atlas of Global Conservation: Changes, Challenges, and Opportunities to Make a Difference. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-26256-0.
  3. ^ a b c "Great Basin shrub steppe". Terrestrial Ecoregions. World Wildlife Fund.
  4. ^ a b "What is the Great Basin?". National Park Service. Retrieved 2015-07-14.
  5. ^ a b c d Grayson, D.K. (1993). The desert’s past; a natural prehistory of the Great Basin. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. OCLC 668191550.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h  This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Geological Survey document: Christopher E. Soulard. "Land-Cover Trends of the Central Basin and Range Ecoregion" (PDF).
  7. ^ Rowland, M.M.; Wisdom, M.J.; Suring, L.H.; Meinke, C.W. (2006). "Greater sage-grouse as an umbrella species for sagebrush-associated vertebrates" (PDF). Biological Conservation. 129 (3): 323–335. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2005.10.048.
  8. ^ Rogers, G.F. (1982). Then and now: a photographic history of vegetation change in the central Great Basin desert. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press. OCLC 8388381.
  9. ^ a b Level III and IV Ecoregions of the Continental United States, EPA, archived from the original on 2016-01-23
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Brussard, P.F.; Charlet, D.A.; Dobkin, D.S.; Ball, L.C. (1998). "Great Basin-Mojave Desert Region" (PDF). In Mac, M.J.; Opler, P.A.; Puckett Haeker, C.E.; et al. (eds.). Status and trends of the nation’s biological resources. 2. Reno, Nevada: U.S. Geological Survey.
  11. ^ a b Macey, J. Robert (May 28, 1986). The Biogeography of a Herpetofaunal Transition Between the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts (PDF) (Report). Retrieved 2011-11-22. Banta & Tanner (1964) felt that the Great Basin Desert [sic] deserved recognition…and defined it…as the interior drainage lying between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. For the purpose of this study, I am defining the Great Basin Desert as the high elevation desert that lacks Creosote Bush.
  12. ^ Omernik, James M. (1995). "Ecoregions: a framework for managing ecosystems" (PDF). The George Wright Forum. 12 (1): 35–51.
  13. ^ a b c "Ecoregional Boundaries; Omernik Ecoregions Level 3, Metadata". NV Geospatial Data Browser. EPA. 2003. Archived from the original on 2014-01-12.
  14. ^ a b Grayson, Donald K. (2011). The Great Basin: A Natural Prehistory. University of California Press. p. 32. ISBN 0520267478.
  15. ^ a b "Great Basin montane forests". Terrestrial Ecoregions. World Wildlife Fund.
  16. ^ "Level III Ecoregions of the Continental United States (revised 2003)" (PDF).
  17. ^ a b c  This article incorporates public domain material from the National Park Service document "Climate: Past & Present". Retrieved on 2015-07-20.
  18. ^ "Seasonal Temperature and Precipitation Information". Western Regional Climate Center. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
  19. ^ "Seasonal Temperature and Precipitation Information". Western Regional Climate Center. Retrieved August 28, 2013.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m  This article incorporates public domain material from the National Park Service document "Ecology of the Great Basin". Retrieved on 2015-07-13.
  21. ^ Billings, W.D. (1951). Vegetational zonation in the Great Basin of western North America. Series B. International Union of Biological Sciences. OCLC 43401391.
  22. ^ Eiswerth, M.E.; Shonkwiler, J.S. (2006). "Examining post-wildfire reseeding on arid rangeland: A multivariate tobit modelling approach". Ecological Modelling. 192: 286–298. doi:10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2005.07.003.
  23. ^ Noss, R.F.; LaRoe, E.T., III; Scott, J.M. (1995). Endangered ecosystems of the United States; a preliminary assessment of loss and degradation. National Biological Service. p. 58. OCLC 32333902. Biological Report 28.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l  This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Geological Survey document: "Level IV Ecoregions of Nevada--poster front side" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  25. ^ "White River Spinedace (Lepidomeda albivallis)". Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
  26. ^ "Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens)". Nevada Fish & Wildlife Office. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Astragalus inyoensis

Astragalus inyoensis is a species of milkvetch known by the common name Inyo milkvetch.

It is native to the Great Basin Desert mountains and flats of western Nevada, and the White and Inyo Mountains of eastern California.

Chihuahuan Desert

The Chihuahuan Desert (Spanish: Desierto de Chihuahua) is a desert and ecoregion designation covering parts of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. It occupies much of West Texas, parts of the middle and lower Rio Grande Valley and the lower Pecos Valley in New Mexico, and a portion of southeastern Arizona, as well as the central and northern portions of the Mexican Plateau. It is bordered on the west by the extensive Sierra Madre Occidental range, along with northwestern lowlands of the Sierra Madre Oriental range. On the Mexican side, it covers a large portion of the state of Chihuahua, along with portions of Coahuila, north-eastern Durango, the extreme northern part of Zacatecas, and small western portions of Nuevo León. With an area of about 362,000 km2 (139,769 sq mi), it is the third largest desert of the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in North America, after the Great Basin Desert.

Cricket Mountains

The Cricket Mountains are a 35-mile (56 km) long mountain range located in central-south Millard County, Utah on the east border of Sevier Lake, in the Great Basin Desert.

The southwest of the Cricket Mountains merges southwest into the smaller San Francisco Mountains on the southern border of Sevier Lake and on the east of Wah Wah Valley.

Cylindropuntia fulgida

Cylindropuntia fulgida, the jumping cholla, also known as the hanging chain cholla, is a cholla cactus native to Sonora and the Southwestern United States.

The greatest range of the jumping cholla is the entire of Sonora, except the Sierra Madre Occidental cordillera on the east and northern California, including the major islands of Tiburon and Isla Ángel de la Guarda.In the Southwestern United States, the range extends into the Colorado Desert of California, and in Arizona. There it occurs south and southwest of the Arizona transition zone of the Mogollon Rim; in the northwest-central Sonoran Desert of Arizona, it is in a few selected locales. It also reaches into the northeast section of the Mojave Desert in southern Nevada and Utah, and in the very southern section of the Great Basin Desert of southern Utah. It also occurs just south of the east-west section of the Bill Williams River, east of the Colorado River in the Yuma Desert.

Danger Cave

Danger Cave is a North American archaeological site located in the Bonneville Basin of western Utah around the Great Salt Lakes region, that features artifacts of the Desert Culture from c. 9000 BC until c. 500 AD. Through carbon-14 dating, it has been determined that there is very little evidence of human life in the Danger Cave area c. 11,000 BP [9000 BC], but there is much evidence of human life by 9,000 BP [8000 BC].Danger cave was first investigated in the 1930s by Elmer Smith, and excavated in the 1950s under the supervision of Jesse D. Jennings, professor at the University of Utah. Jennings' work at the site was considered ground-breaking due to his exacting standards in excavation and data analysis. Though Jenning's findings eventually gained widespread acceptance, his publications garnered both criticism and support at first. Relating the archaeological evidence from Danger Cave to an ethnographic model, Jennings framed a view of the little-known Great Basin Desert culture which was unknown at the time.

The extremely dry cave had created an ideal storage condition that preserved a variety of artifacts from beetle wings to textiles and human paleofeces. They also found leather scraps, pieces of string, nets of twine, coarse fabric, basket fragments, and bone and wood tools such as knives, weapons, and millstones. In total, excavations have produced over 2,500 chipped-stone artifacts and over 1,000 grinding stones. The excavation also yielded identifiable fragments of 68 plant species that still grow today within ten miles of the cave as well as the bones of many species of animals.The data collected from the cave suggested that the Desert Culture had a sparse population, with small social units numbering no more than 25 to 30 people. The focus on survival prevented the inhabitants from building permanent structures, developing complicated rituals, or amassing extensive personal property. The Desert Culture persisted for thousands of years despite the hardships they faced, and eventually became the basis for other early Utah cultures such as the Fremont.

It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961.

Death Valley

Death Valley is a desert valley located in Eastern California, in the northern Mojave Desert bordering the Great Basin Desert. It is one of the hottest places in the world along with deserts in the Middle East.Death Valley's Badwater Basin is the point of the lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. This point is 84.6 miles (136.2 km) east-southeast of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, with an elevation of 14,505 feet (4,421 m). On the afternoon of July 10, 1913, the United States Weather Bureau recorded a high temperature of 134 °F (56.7 °C) at Furnace Creek in Death Valley. This temperature stands as the highest ambient air temperature ever recorded at the surface of the Earth.Located near the border of California and Nevada, in the Great Basin, east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Death Valley constitutes much of Death Valley National Park and is the principal feature of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve. It is located mostly in Inyo County, California. It runs from north to south between the Amargosa Range on the east and the Panamint Range on the west; the Grapevine Mountains and the Owlshead Mountains form its northern and southern boundaries, respectively. It has an area of about 3,000 sq mi (7,800 km2). The highest point in Death Valley itself is Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range, which has an elevation of 11,043 feet (3,366 m).

Deserts of California

The Deserts of California have unique ecosystems and habitats, a sociocultural and historical "Old West" collection of legends, districts, and communities, and they also form a popular tourism region of dramatic natural features and recreational development. All of the deserts are located in eastern Southern California, in the Western United States.

Ecology of California

The ecology of California can be understood by dividing the state into a number of ecoregions, which contain distinct ecological communities of plants and animals in a contiguous region. The ecoregions of California can be grouped into four major groups: desert ecoregions (such as the Mojave Desert), Mediterranean ecoregions (such as the Central Valley), forested mountains (such as the Sierra Nevada), and coastal forests.Different authorities define the boundaries of ecoregions somewhat differently: this article follows the definitions of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge

Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge is at the southern end of the Great Salt Lake Desert, part of the

Great Basin in Juab County, Utah. The Refuge is managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. As an oasis in the Great Basin Desert in western Utah, Fish Springs serves a variety of species including fish, migratory birds, deer, coyotes, pronghorn, cougars and other native species.

The reserve can be reached by paved road from Lynndyl, Utah to Topaz Mountain and then by improved dirt road to the Pony Express Road/Lincoln Highway improved dirt road which runs through the Refuge. The Refuge also is a recreational area for permitted outdoor activities. The Fish Springs Range runs north to south and is immediately west of the Wildlife Refuge.

Fish Springs started as a Pony Express and Overland Stage station, and got its name from the fish that populated the springs, which were reported to be over 6 inches (15 cm) in length.The fish are left over from ancient Lake Bonneville which receded about 14,000 years ago. Several natural springs feed the wetlands. These are along a linear path at the range front (that is, fault controlled), and include North Springs, Deadman Springs, House Springs, Middle Springs, Thomas Springs, South Springs, and Percy Springs. Fish Springs is thought to be the end of a long flowpath of groundwater, starting in the Schell Creek Range and Snake Range area and flowing along permeable bedrock (for example, limestones) or faults toward Fish Springs. This comes from the fact the annual discharge of the springs is 27,500 acre feet (33,900,000 m3)/year, and the annual recharge for the drainage area (the range front and Fish Springs Flat) is about 4,000 acre feet (4,900,000 m3)/year, meaning over 6 times more water flows out of the springs than falls in the valley annually by precipitation. The springs and several wells in the area are monitored by Fish and Wildlife personnel and/or the Utah Geological Survey. The water of Fish Springs is not suited for human consumption, being warm (~80 °F (27 °C)) and highly saline.

Great Basin

The Great Basin is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds in North America. It spans nearly all of Nevada, much of Oregon and Utah, and portions of California, Idaho, and Wyoming. It is noted for both its arid climate and the basin and range topography that varies from the North American low point at Badwater Basin to the highest point of the contiguous United States, less than 100 miles (160 km) away at the summit of Mount Whitney. The region spans several physiographic divisions, biomes, ecoregions, and deserts.

Kangaroo mouse

A kangaroo mouse is either one of the two species of jumping mouse (genus Microdipodops) native to the deserts of the southwestern United States, predominantly found in the state of Nevada. The name "kangaroo mouse" refers to the species' extraordinary jumping ability, as well as its habit of bipedal locomotion. The two species are:

Pale kangaroo mouse – Microdipodops pallidus

Dark kangaroo mouse – Microdipodops megacephalusBoth species of kangaroo mouse live in sandy desert ecosystems, and forage for seeds and vegetation amongst the scrub brush of their native habitat. The dark kangaroo mouse is also known to feed occasionally on insects and carrion. The mouse rarely drinks water, instead deriving it metabolically from the foods it eats. The kangaroo mouse collects food and maintains large caches in their burrows, which are excavated to a length of between 3 and 8 feet (1 to 2.5 meters). The burrow, the entrance to which the mouse covers during daylight hours, is also used to raise litters of between 2 and 7 young. The pale kangaroo mouse burrows only in fine sand, while the dark kangaroo mouse prefers fine, gravelly soils but may also burrow in sand or sandy soil. Kangaroo mice are nocturnal, and are most active in the two hours following sunset. They are believed to hibernate during cold weather. Although mitochondrial data indicate that the clades appear to be in approximate genetic equilibrium and have not suffered any extreme bottlenecks over time, there is still concern for the survival of smaller and more vulnerable Microdipodops subpopulations due to impending habitat threats in the Great Basin Desert.

The kangaroo mice are closely related to the kangaroo rats, which belong to the same subfamily, Dipodomyinae.

List of North American deserts

This list of North American deserts identifies areas of the continent that receive less than 10 in (250 mm) annual precipitation. The "North American Desert" is also the term for a large U.S. Level 1 ecoregion (EPA) of the North American Cordillera, in the Deserts and xeric shrublands biome (WWF). The continent's deserts are largely between the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Madre Oriental on the east, and the rain shadow-creating Sierra Nevada, Transverse, and Peninsular Ranges on the west. The North American xeric region of over 95,751 sq mi (247,990 km2) includes: three major deserts; numerous smaller deserts; and large non-desert arid regions; in the western United States and in northeast, central, and northwest Mexico.

Mojave Desert

The Mojave Desert ( mo-HAH-vee; Mohave: Hayikwiir Mat'aar) is an arid rain-shadow desert and the driest desert in North America. It is in the Southwestern United States, primarily within southeastern California and southern Nevada, and it occupies 47,877 sq mi (124,000 km2). Very small areas also extend into Utah and Arizona. Its boundaries are generally noted by the presence of Joshua trees, which are native only to the Mojave Desert and are considered an indicator species, and it is believed to support an additional 1,750 to 2,000 species of plants. The central part of the desert is sparsely populated, while its peripheries support large communities such as Las Vegas, Barstow, Lancaster, Palmdale, Victorville, and St. George.

The Mojave Desert is bordered by the Great Basin Desert to its north and the Sonoran Desert to its south and east. Topographical boundaries include the Tehachapi Mountains to the west, and the San Gabriel Mountains and San Bernardino Mountains to the south. The mountain boundaries are distinct because they are outlined by the two largest faults in California – the San Andreas and Garlock faults. The Mojave Desert displays typical basin and range topography. Higher elevations above 2,000 ft (610 m) in the Mojave are commonly referred to as the High Desert; however, Death Valley is the lowest elevation in North America at 280 ft (85 m) below sea level and is one of the Mojave Desert's most notorious places. Large parts of the Mojave Desert are often referred to as the "high desert", in contrast to the "low desert", the Sonoran Desert to the south. Most of the Mojave Desert is above 2,000 ft (610 m), with only Death Valley and the Colorado River basin in the east (including the neighbouring Las Vegas Valley) being lower. The Mojave Desert, however, is generally lower than the even higher Great Basin Desert to the north. The Mojave Desert occupies less than 50,000 sq mi (130,000 km2), making it the smallest of the North American deserts.The spelling Mojave originates from the Spanish language while the spelling Mohave comes from modern English. Both are used today, although the Mojave Tribal Nation officially uses the spelling Mojave; the word is a shortened form of Hamakhaave, their endonym in their native language, which means 'beside the water'.

North America (TV series)

North America is a miniseries that aired on the Discovery Channel. It premiered on May 19, 2013. It ran for seven episodes, and ended on June 16, 2013.The series includes the topics of nature and its beauty on the continent of North America.

The series is the first natural history landmark series on the Discovery Channel that is internally produced. The series has also been aired on Animal Planet.

Pale kangaroo mouse

The pale kangaroo mouse or Soda Spring Valley kangaroo mouse (Microdipodops pallidus) is a species of rodent in the family Heteromyidae. It is endemic to California and Nevada in the United States.

Phidippus octopunctatus

Phidippus octopunctatus is a jumping spider that occurs in the United States and Mexico, mostly in the Great Basin Desert. It is among the largest jumping spiders found in North America, approaching 25 millimetres (0.98 in) in body length. They are gray to brownish-gray in color.

Unlike Phidippus californicus, which lives in the same habitat, it builds a large and prominent nest among the branches of a bush to house its egg cocoon.Adult males, unmated adult and subadult females can be found in late August.

P. octopunctatus has been observed to hunt large prey, such as grasshoppers and bees.

Sagebrush scrub

Sagebrush scrub is a vegetation type (biome) of mid to high elevation Western United States deserts characterized by low growing, drought resistant shrubs including sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and its associates. It is the dominant vegetation type of the Great Basin Desert (Great Basin shrub steppe), occurs along the margins of the Mojave Desert, including in the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas and Transverse Ranges of California, and occurs in the Colorado Plateau and Canyonlands region, where it may be referred to as cool desert shrub.It often occurs adjacent to Pinyon-juniper woodland communities, between 4,000 and 7,000 feet elevation, and where annual precipitation is 8"-15", much falling as snow.Sometimes it occurs in pure stands of sagebrush, or with associates that vary from region to region. Sagebrush scrub may occur as an understory of pinyon-juniper woodland.

Sphaeralcea ambigua

Sphaeralcea ambigua, commonly known as desert globemallow or apricot mallow, is a member of the genus Sphaeralcea in the mallow family (Malvaceae).It is a perennial shrub native to parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico in the United States and Sonora and Baja California in northwest Mexico. It grows well in alkaline soil, both sandy or clay, usually in the company of creosote bush scrub and desert chaparral habitats, at 150–2,500 metres (490–8,200 ft) in elevation. It is found in the Mojave Desert, Great Basin desert, and Sonoran Desert ecoregions.

University of Nevada, Reno Arboretum

University of Nevada, Reno Arboretum is a state arboretum located across the campus at the University of Nevada, Reno in Reno, Nevada.

The arboretum was established in 1985 and contains a collection of trees, shrubs, flowers, ornamentals and native flora, including over 60 genera and about 200 species of trees, many with several cultivars present. Thirty-six mature elm trees line the Quad.

Cherry Blossom Garden – Mt. Fuji cherry trees, azaleas, bamboo and ornamental grasses.

Benson Gardens and Xeriscape, with Challenger Tree Memorial – crabapples, plums, maples, evergreens, plus an area of drought tolerant plants. Blue Atlas Cedars commemorate the astronauts lost in the Challenger Space Shuttle accident.

The Quad – The Quad was originally used as a parade ground for student cadets in the late 19th century and in 1908 replanted to Thomas Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia lawn. In 1988, several elms were removed due to Dutch elm disease. The Quad is now planted with a mixture of elm, hackberry, ash and oak trees, and the lawn is interspersed with weeping white birch, oak and evergreen trees.

Jimmie’s Garden – rock daphne, hornbeam, weeping Nootka cypress, a Japanese pagoda tree, star magnolias, rhododendrons, perennial shrubs and flowers.

Fleischmann Agriculture Entry Landscape – magnolia, spring-flowering bulbs and annuals. Trees include crimean lindens, ash, blue spruce, dwarf montgomery spruce and flowering pears along the street.

Merriam A. Brown Rose Garden – roses.

Manzanita Lake

Joe Robertson Native Garden – plants from the Great Basin Desert, Mojave Desert and Sonoran Desert.

Climate data for Great Basin National Park - Lehman Caves Visitor Center (elevation 6,840 feet (2,080 m))
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 67
Average high °F (°C) 40.5
Average low °F (°C) 18.9
Record low °F (°C) −20
Average precipitation inches (mm) 1.05
Average snowfall inches (cm) 12.8
Climate data for Fallon, Nevada. (Elevation 3,960 feet (1,210 m))
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 71
Average high °F (°C) 44.3
Average low °F (°C) 18.1
Record low °F (°C) −25
Average precipitation inches (mm) 0.54
Average snowfall inches (cm) 1.8
Source: The Western Regional Climate Center[18]
Climate data for Knolls, Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah. (Elevation 4,250 feet (1,300 m))
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 63
Average high °F (°C) 36.5
Average low °F (°C) 16.9
Record low °F (°C) −16
Average precipitation inches (mm) 0.61
Average snowfall inches (cm) 0.3
Source: The Western Regional Climate Center[19]
North America
South America
Polar Regions

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