Due to the scarcity of water and food in the desert, animals are adapted to eat just anything they can stomach, including the spiky cactus. How they manage to eat the prickly plant without getting hurt leaves us wondering. What animals are capable of eating a cactus?
Camels in the desert usually eat cactus. They use some parts of their body such as 1) flexible lips, 2) tough palate, and 3) multi-chambered stomach and learn behavioral traits to avoid getting hurt with the cactus spines. Other animals that eat cactus are:
- Hares and rabbits,
- Desert tortoises,
- Deers and wild goats,
- Squirrels and gophers,
- Birds and bats, and
It’s incredible how these desert dwellers had survived the inhospitable living conditions by eating a plant full of needles. How did they do that? Well, let’s find out by starting with the most common cactus-eater, the camels!
Camels eat cactus by grabbing it with their lips and chewing in a rotating motion through the help of their tough tongue and hard palates. They pivot the cactus inside their mouth so it will vertically slide down their throat to their multi-chambered stomach.
Camels have interesting physiological characteristics and specialized digestive systems. The inside of their mouth is so weird-looking, and their stomach has several compartments! These features make a camel capable of consuming a thorny and oxalic acid-packed cactus without causing potential damage to its body.
Let’s delve deeper into details. Here are several traits that benefit camels when eating cactus:
The camel has an upper lip split into halves that it can use and move like fingers. Their upper lips are called prehensile because they can grab or grip foods directly to their mouth.
Through their prehensile lips, a camel can feel the texture of the things that enter its mouth. Camels can identify the direction of cactus spines with their sensitive prehensile lips and hence reposition the food upon entering their mouth.
Unusual cone-like hard ridges called papillae lined the entire inner mouth, including the tongue, palates, and inner cheeks. Papillae are like long fingers moving and preventing spines from penetrating the camel’s mouth as the powerful teeth chew on the succulent food.
The papillae are made up of bundles of keratin, making them hard and capable of handling the sharp needles of the cactus. The strong jaws and powerful teeth help crush the cactus, grinding the spines from side to side in a rotating motion without injury.
This chewing technique and numerous papillae surrounding the camel’s inside mouth positioned the cactus so that the spines face backward and not pierce the camel’s throat. Other animals have papillae, but camels have particularly dense and tough palates to make the best of any food source they come across in the desert.
Camels are like ruminants that have several chambers in their stomach. Billions of bacteria harbor the 3 compartments in their stomach, facilitating the metabolism of oxalates and digesting the cellulose from a cactus.
Since camels have three chambers in their stomach, their digestive system and bacteria inside allow food fermentation from one stomach before digestion. The fermented food will be digested in the next compartment allowing nutrient absorption. Camel’s are capable of metabolizing toxic oxalates and digesting cellulose.
Camels eating cactus effortlessly doesn’t mean they are not hurt. They do not have much options in the desert, so they are adapted to eat any possible food their mouth can get. Besides, cacti are the finest source of water and nutrition.
In nature, camels don’t particularly love eating cactus because it can be painful, but they can’t be picky eaters as the desert has limited food sources. That’s how they evolved in the desert, as they did not have many choices. There are X reasons why camels feed on cacti.
Cacti are among the plants abundant in the desert so they are the largest and most abundant source of nutrition. Hence, animals adapted to be able to eat them despite their thorns.
The scarcity of water and food in the remote desert makes desert animals non-picky eaters. They munch on what they manage to come across in the wild, even if it can be painful and not appealing. Since cacti are the widespread vegetation in the desert, camels learned to handle them to fill their hungry stomachs.
Aside from the average 85% water content of cactus, they are also rich in calcium, magnesium, fiber, potassium, and other minerals. So even they get hurt, camels endure it just to have a delectable refill.
It’s no wonder why desert animals would want to munch on the cactus despite pain and struggle before they fill their bellies. Cacti can satisfy their water requirements and provide nourishment for them in the hot arid region. Camels and other animals adapted and developed strategies to eat spiky herbage less hurtful.
Camels are herbivores, and they get attracted to the greenish succulent stem of the cactus.
When camels are hungry, they can eat almost anything, including tents and sticks. But nothing beats the herbaceous nourishment they can get in cactus. Camels can consume every part of the cactus, so it is the first-rate menu for them.
The animals that feed on cacti have adapted and evolved to provide food without getting harmed by the sharp spines and cacti toxins. This implies anatomical and behavior adaptations.
Anatomical: Animals with hoofs, tusks, antlers, and horns learned the strategy of crushing the cactus to get rid of the spines. Birds use their sharp and pointed beaks to get food and create cavities for their nests.
Behavioral: Iguanas have the instinct to break long spines with their front feet before gulping the whole cactus pad. Some animals devour only the stem and the fruits of the cactus. Others remove the spines first just to get into the succulent stem.
Desert animals that eat cactus includes:
- Hares and Rabbits
- Desert Tortoise
- Deers and Wild Goats
- Squirrels and Gophers
- Birds and Bats
The wild desert offers a limited food source to these inhabitants. Over time, these animals have accustomed and evolved special abilities to feed on the cactus without hurting themselves so as to survive extended periods of drought.
Let’s learn how these desert citizens feed on cacti.
Javelinas or Peccary are pig-like animals that eat the fruits and stems, including the spines of the cactus. However, they choose cacti with fewer spines first and shift to heavily-spined when cacti get fewer.
They have hoofs and sharp tusks, which they use to crush cactus stems and dig cactus roots to feed themselves. Peccary also rehydrates from the succulent stem and juicy fruits of the cacti. They are among the animals of the desert that doesn’t mind eating the cactus with spines.
Jackrabbits and Eastern cottontails belong to the same family of Leporidae, and both feed on the cactus. They don’t have tough structures to endure the spines, so they mainly consume the stems avoiding the spines.
Sometimes they reach on the fruits just above the base and disperse the cactus seeds through their poop. The ecosystem at work!
Desert tortoises have jaws that can nibble on the fibrous succulent stem on the base of the cactus. They avoid the spines and choose only the part where they can safely bite without being hurt.
Tortoises prefer the Opuntia cactus pad because it has scattered spines where they can easily grab the flesh. They love the cacti fruits, but only those that fall on the ground.
Among the widely seen animals that consume cacti are deers and wild goats in the desert. Their sharp antlers and solid horns benefit them when hunting for food.
They cannot withstand the sharp spikes of the cactus, so they break open the cactus stem first with their antlers and horns to get into the fleshy stem. The sweet juicy cacti fruits are delicious meals for them.
These tiny animals eat cactus stems, avoiding the spines. They love the prickly pear cactus stems, fruits, and seeds.
In return for helping cactus reproduce by seed dispersion and flower pollination, birds and bats are fed on the fleshy stems and soft fruits of the cactus.
Birds such as woodpecker and glided flicker eat the Saguaro cactus’s fruits and flesh by cherry-picking with their pointed sharp beaks to avoid the prickly spines. The hole they made in the stem is then converted into a nesting place for their offspring.
On the other hand, bats have no defense against the spines, so they feed on the ripe fruits of the cactus. It is also their source of hydration during drought.
Like camels, Galapagos land iguanas are adapted to eating the entire parts of the cactus without hassle. They are fond of eating the Opuntia pads and fruits.
Iguanas get rid of the long spines using their front feet, but sometimes they can just eat short spines without suffering adverse effects. The cactus can glide easily through their digestive tract.
- Camels can eat all cactus parts, including the spines, because they have prehensile lips, papillae, and a robust multi-chamber stomach to digest and metabolize the food.
- Among other animals that can eat cactus are javelinas, hares, rabbits, and desert tortoises. Deers and wild goats eat cactus by breaking the stem with their solid horns and antlers. Squirrels, gophers, birds, bats, and iguanas rely on the cactus for food and water.
- Animals that feed on cacti have developed adaptations and strategies to avoid their harmful effects and survive drought and hunger in the wild.
- “Camel Anatomy; more than just a hump,” St. John Fisher College
- “Digestive Anatomy in Ruminants,” Colorado State University
- “Directional Selection,” Brooklyn University
- “Nutritional Importance of Cactus,” Academia Edu
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