Ecology and Biodiversity of the Tumacacori Highlands


"To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation." - Aldo Leopold 1937.

The Sky Island Region | The Tumacacori Highlands
Wildlife Habitat | Ecosystem Protection | Clean Air and Water | Endangered Species | The Jaguar | Biodiversity


The Sky Island Region

The 70,000-square-mile Sky Islands region of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico is globally important because of its rich diversity of species and habitats, its history as the birthplace of Aldo Leopold's great American conservation ethic, and as the last North American stronghold of such magnificent predators as the Mexican wolf and jaguar.

These mountain "islands," forested ranges separated by vast expanses of desert and grassland plains, are among the most diverse ecosystems in the world because of their great topographic complexity and unique location at the meeting point of several major desert and forest biological provinces. The region is a blend of tropical and temperate, harboring well over half the bird species of North America - 29 bat species, over 3,000 species of plants, and 104 species of mammals - a diversity greater than anywhere else in the United States.

The Tumacacori Highlands

The Tumacacori Highlands are one of the most biologically diverse areas in the United States. As one of most popular birding areas in the world with more than 400 bird species from both temperate and sub-tropical ranges, the Sky Island region and Tumacacori Highlands also host more mammal and reptile species than anywhere else in the U.S. Southern Arizona also boasts the highest concentration of jaguar sightings in the nation and offers birding enthusiasts one of the most species-rich habitats in the world.

Recognized as valuable intact core wildlife habitat in the RARE II (Roadless Area Review and Evaluation) process and from on-the-ground survey work by Sky Island Alliance staff, volunteers and collaborating groups, the area supports native biodiversity of game and non-game species, both common and rare, including whitetail deer, Coue's deer, javelina, mountain lion, Peregrine falcon, golden eagle, elegant trogon, five-stripped sparrow, Mexican spotted owl, Sonora chub, Chiricahua leopard frog, and jaguar. The area is diverse in vegetation and views as well - predominately rolling grassland hills and open-canopy oak, with sheer cliffs, deep canyons, and pine trees at the highest elevations.

The varied habitats of the Tumacacori, Atascosa and Pajarita Mountains support high quality invertebrate, reptile and bird assemblages representative of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico. The area is an arena for the intermingling of subtropical and northern species of plants and animals. Madrean oak savannahs, well-watered deep canyons, and high cliffs provide a number of microclimates. These features and their connection to Sierra Madre flora and fauna, combine to create habitat for a number of plants and animals occurring no where else.

The area is outstanding in its biological distinctness, supporting exceptional and intact habitat for 74 species listed for their rarity by federal and state governments. Subtropical vertebrate species such as the Mexican vine snake, Northern Mexican garter snake and the occasional jaguar reside here. Vegetation in the area ranges from desertscrub and semidesert grassland, to mixed pine-oak woodland at mid elevations, to Chihuahuan pine stands near the top of Ramanote Peak, and Pine Canyon in the Tumacacori Mountains. Plants with very different geographical origins such as the Utah serviceberry, and a subtropical bromeliad found nowhere else in the United States, grow near one another in canyon habitats.

Drainages of the Pajarita-Atascosa mountain complex support pine-oak woodland at exceptionally low elevations in canyon bottoms. Canyons here open south into Mexico supporting precious strips of riparian habitat. Bird species including the elegant trogon, rose-throated becard and five-striped sparrow reach their northernmost extent in the excellent riparian habitat, brushy hillsides and oak-sycamore canopy lining Sycamore Canyon. The canyon has been designated an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society for its breeding species in unique habitats and its status as an outstanding landbird stopover.

The canyon also supports an amazing diversity of plants, exemplified with 593 species recorded in Sycamore Canyon alone. The Threatened Sonora chub can be found in pools along Sycamore Creek and California Gulch, and Mexican long-tongued bats feed on the nectar, and pollen of flowers and agaves growing in or near the canyon. At least 200 species of butterfly have been observed in the canyon along with unusual invertebrate species such as Diplocentrus spitaeri, an endemic scorpion.

Read more about the importance of the Tumacacori Highlands!

Tumacacori Ecological Managment Report (EMA), Chaper 6 of the State of the Coronado National Forest: An Assessment and Recommendations for the 21st Century. Read the whole document at the Sky Island Action Center.

The Sky Island region. Map produced by Sky Island Alliance, 2008.

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Core Wildlife Habitat
In the field of Conservation Biology, Cores-and-Corridors is a concept of protecting important "core" habitat areas and the "corridors" that connect them. Core habitats are large, unsegmented areas where species can live and reproduce. Some species may never leave core habitat, while others use them like large stepping stones to get from one place to another. Corridors are areas of intact habitat that animals use to move between core habitat areas, whether for dispersal (moving away from their birthplace), migration (such as seasonal movement) or in search of a mate, food, water, or space. Corridors are important for the movement of species across the landscape. When a species cannot move from one core area to another, genetic diversity decreases to the point of inbreeding and eventual extinction.

The Tumacacori Highlands serve as exceptional core habitat. Wilderness protection for the Tumacacori Highlands will ensure that the rich diversity of plant and animal life in our region will continue to have refuge here.

Ecosystem Protection
A Wilderness Area is protected and managed to preserve its natural condition, where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humans. Natural cycles, processes, and systems are conserved with Wilderness designation in addition to the protection of individual species and spectaular views. The big picture contains critical aspects of the web of life... the flow of water, the purifying of the air, the many connecting interactions between the land and its inhabitants. Wilderness ecosystems positively affect our lives in many direct and indirect ways.

Clean Air and Clean Water
As part of the Santa Cruz River watershed, the Tumacacori Highlands provide a naturally functioning ecosystem that offers clean air and water for residents surrounding the area. Wilderness designation in the Highlands will help to keep our watersheds and air healthy for the future.

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Threatened and Endangered Species
Selected Threatened and Endangered Species in the
Tumacacori Highlands region

For a complete list of Threatened and Endangered Species in Pima and Santa Cruz Counties, see
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southwest Region 2 Arizona Ecological Services Field Office.

The Tumacacori Highlands are the last refuge and stronghold for some of these struggling species... for others a promise of secure, healthy habitat for returning populations.

Chiricahua leopard frog
Lithobates [Rana] chiricahuensis
Cream colored spots on dark rear thigh, dorsal folds interrupted, distinctive call.
Streams, rivers, backwaters, ponds, and stock tanks that are mostly free from non-native fish, crayfish and bullfrogs.

Desert pupfish
Cyprinodon macularius
Small (2 inches long). Breeding males are blue with yellow on tail. Females tan to olive
colored with silvery sides.
< 5,000ft
Extirpated from Arizona - reintroductions have occurred across southern Arizona in small streams, pools, ponds, tanks, and other small aquatic habitats. Tolerates saline and warm water.

Gila chub
Gila intermedia
Deep compressed body, flat head. Dark olive-gray color above, silver sides.
Endemic to Gila River Basin.
Pools, springs, cienegas and streams.

Gila topminnow
Poeciliopsis occidentalis occidentalis
Small (2 inches), guppy-like. Gives birth to live young. Breeding males are jet black
with yellow fins.
< 4,500ft
Historically occurred in backwaters of large rivers but currently isolated to small streams, springs and cienegas vegetated shallows.

Huachuca water umbel
Lilaeopsis schaffneriana ssp. recurva
Herbaceous, semi-aquatic perennial in the parsley family, with slender erect, hollow, leaves. Flowers has 3-10 flowered umbels.

Cienegas, perennial low gradient streams, wetlands. Also occurs in Sonora.
Panthera onca
Largest species of cat native to Southwest. Muscular, with relatively short, massive limbs, and a deep chested body. Only North American cat species
that "roars" - sounds like a deep cough. Usually cinnamon-buff
in color with many black rosette-like spots. Weighs 90-300lbs.

Found in Sonoran desert scrub up through sub-alpine conifer forest.
Lesser long-nosed bat
Leptonyceris curasoae yerbabuenae
Elongated muzzle, small leaf nose, and long tongue.
Yellowish brown or gray above and cinnamon brown below.
Tail appears to be lacking.
Easily disturbed. Forages at
night on nectar, pollen and
fruit of agave and columnar

Desert scrub habitat with agave and columnar cacti (such as saguaro) present as food plants. Day roots in caves and abandoned tunnels. Migratory: present in Arizona April - September, and south of the border the remainder of the year

Mexican spotted owl
Strix occidentalis lucida
Medium size with dark eyes
and no ear tuffs. Brownish and heavily spotted with white or beige.
Nests in canyons or in older, dense forests of mixed conifer or ponderosa pine/gambel oak. Sites with cool microclimates are important.

Leopardus [Felis] pardalis
Medium-sized spotted cat
whose tail is about 1/2 the
length of head and body. Yellowish with black streaks
and stripes running from front
to back. Tail is spotted and
face is less heavily streaked
than the back and sides.
< 8,000ft
Humid tropical and subtropical forests, savannahs and semi-arid thorn scrub. Requires dense cover. Occurs south of the border and in southern Texas. Unconfirmed reports of individuals in the southern part of Arizona continue to be received.

Pima pineapple cactus
Coryphantha scheeri var. robustispina
Small cactus, 4-7 inches tall
and 3-4 inches in diameter. Central spines are 1 inch long, hooked, straw colored, and surrounded by 6-15 radial spines. Yellow, salmon or
white flower with narrow floral tube.

Sonoran desert scrub or semi-desert grassland in alluvial valleys or on hillsides.
Sonoran chub
Gila ditaenia

Minnow, less than 5 inches
long, moderately chubby, dark colored fish with two prominent black lateral bands on the
sides and a dark oval spot at
the base of the tail. Breeding males have red lower fins and
an orange belly.

Perennial and intermittent small to moderate streams with boulders and cliffs. Critical habitat in Sycamore Creek (in Tumacacori Highlands). Yank Spring to international border, 2,0 km of Penasco Creek, and lower half of unnamed stream entering Sycamore Creek about 2,4km downstream from Yank Spring. Species extends into Mexico (Altar and Magdelena rivers).

Why Save Endangered Species? - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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The American Jaguar
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is a charismatic symbol of the diversity and health of the place that it lives. Historically found as far north as the Grand Canyon, predator control measures and hunting led jaguars were believed to have been hunted to extinction in the U.S. With no sightings or evidence to document their presence, jaguars were not listed as a federally Endangered Species when the Act was passed in 1972. Then in 1996, two outdoorsmen discovered jaguars in different mountain ranges in southern Arizona while lion hunting. Instead of picking up a rifle, both documented the jaguars on camera – the first photos of living wild jaguars in the United States. Now avid jaguar conservationists, both men have contributed to jaguar conservation and scientific study in here in the U.S and in Mexico, and have published books about each of their life-changing experiences. Officially listed as a federally Endangered Species in 1997, jaguars are also protected by CITES trade agreements and are considered endangered throughout their range in Mexico and South America. Biologists have documented the closest breeding population of jaguars 135 miles south of the border in the Northern Jaguar Reserve of Los Pavos, and are working to identify and protect important corridors for jaguars moving to protected areas in the southern Arizona and New Mexico [See the map].

Jaguars continue to be studied both north and south of the international border. It is a story of success and struggle... as the jaguar seeks to reclaim its historical territory and faces impermeable border walls, the threat of poaching and increasing development and habitat loss.

Protecting the jaguar's potential core habitat areas, these Sky Island ranges, and their movement corridors between them, is the best way to keep these majestic symbols of health and strength in our wildlands. Their natural dispersal throughout the landscape is part of the natural process and biology of the region, and attests to the quality of the land they inhabit. The presence of jaguars indicates an abundant and healthy prey base – primarily deer and javelina – as well as the presence water and a diverse, robust and rugged habitat.


Want to learn more? Check out these resources:
Save the Jaguar - Wildlife Conservation Society
Are Wild Jaguars Moving Back Into the U.S.? - National Geographic News
Automated cameras spot jaguars in Southern Arizona - Arizona Daily Star
Jaguar Conservation Team - Arizona Game and Fish Department
The Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project
The Northern Jaguar Project
Naturalia - Reserva del jaguar de norte
Sky Island Alliance Northern Mexico Conservation Program
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Jaguar

Recommended Books:
Eyes of Fire: Encounter with a Borderland Jaguar. 1996. Warner Glenn.
Tracking the Felids of the Borderlands. 1998. Jack Childs.
Borderland Jaguars: Tigres de la Frontera. 2001. David E. Brown.
Ambushed on the Jaguar Trail: Hidden Cameras on the Mexican Border.
2008. Jack and Anna Childs.


What's the Big Deal with Biological Diversity?

Why are scientists so into "biodiversity?" What is the big deal? Besides the benefit of having many different kinds of plants and animals for us to appreciate, biodiversity also serves a very important purpose. It acts like nature's back-up... if disease, human influence or natural disaster leads to the extinction or decline of a species, another species that fills the same ecological niche (its function or role) can be there to take up the job, and the ecosystem continues to run smoothly. This can be quite complex... many species have very unique and distinctive roles, which can never be replaced. So when we lose one species, we come that much closer to losing everything.

Places like the Tumacacori Highlands are becoming increasingly rare. Wilderness designation doesn't just make a nice place for jaguars and white-tail deer, vine snakes and leopard frogs to live... it recognizes the importance of preserving every piece of a larger system, because without every unique piece of the puzzle, things go out of balance. Without large carnivores like mountain lions and jaguars, deer multiply and require management, grasses become overgrazed and water tanks and springs are trampled and sucked dry. Less charismatic species and processes have the same effect on the system as a whole - Rachel Carson describes this phenomenon in Silent Spring when she predicted what would happen if there were no more bees. These are only two examples of how a seemingly small problem affects everything and everyone that interacts with it... including ourselves.

"...the choice is not between wild places and people, it is between a rich or impoverished existence for man."
- Thomas Lovejoy


The Sky Island Region | The Tumacacori Highlands
Wildlife Habitat | Ecosystem Protection | Clean Air and Water | Endangered Species | The Jaguar | Importance of Biodiversity



Copyright © 2008 Sky Island Alliance
P.O. Box 41165 Tucson, AZ 85717 | 520-624-7080 |