The eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano turned its immediate vicinity into an incinerated, sterilized blast zone. More than 400 years passed before any vegetation grew again here. Slowly, plant pioneers began to recolonize the land. Bit by bit, they established islands of vegetation in the cinder wastelands, in turn providing habitat for a surprising array of animal life.
Today, cave-like lava tubes and cracks in the lava flows serve the needs of insects, spiders, lizards, and rodents. Bats inhabit some of these spaces, flying out to feed at night. Birds fly freely overhead, including Stellers jays, pinyon jays, black-chinned hummingbirds, white-breasted nuthatches, ravens and crows, hawks and golden eagles.
Almost 1000 years later, this is still a tough place to survive. Vegetation is sparse, and surface water is practically nonexistent. The Bonito lava flow is extremely inhospitable. But the surrounding pine forests provide habitat for mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bobcat, coyote, Aberts squirrels, cottontails, and porcupines. Some of these animals wander widely, sometimes into the cinders.
Sunset Crater Volcano is surrounded by ponderosa and pinyon pines, aspens, junipers, open meadows, and barren cinder and lava fields. This variety of landscapes creates numerous home for a surprising array of bird species.
One of the showiest and most common birds in the monument is the Stellers jay, a raucous member of the intelligent corvid family. Look for a large, blue bird with a black head, prominent crest, and white eyebrow markings.
From pronghorns to porcupines, pausing awhile at Sunset Crater Volcano can reveal some of North America's most majestic mammals. Many of these are often seen early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the sun is low on the horizon.
A stop at the visitor center often reveals one or more Aberts squirrels with tassel-tipped ears, gray fur, and a reddish stripe from nape to tail. Prairie dogs stand sentinel along the road through Bonito Meadow. Chipmunks forage in the grasses near the volcano and lava flow.
The monument's large herbivores include American pronghorn, elk, and mule deer. Rarely seen carnivores include mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes.
Please do not feed wildlife—interacting with humans is bad for them. Observe all speed limits throughout the scenic loop road to minimize wildlife collisions.
The lava flow and cinder fields of Sunset Crater Volcano are especially difficult habitats for reptiles. The sparse vegetation surrounding the volcano provides little shade for these exothermic or “cold-blooded” animals to regulate their body temperature. Only nine species of reptiles have been identified confidently as living within the monument’s boundaries.
Visitors often notice that lizards on the lava and cinder fields are black. Genetic mutations causing black scales give darker lizards an advantage: lighter lizards are more easily seen by airborne predators like hawks. Over time, predators have removed light-colored lizards from the local gene pool, while darker lizards have survived to pass their traits to the next generation.
Last updated: January 1, 2018