9 Animals That Can Eat Cactus
This is How They Do It!

Did you know that some animals eat cacti, including their spines? Yes it's true, and you won't believe the way they do it!

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Jimena Bolívar

June 27, 2021


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Why Do Animals Feed on Cacti?

Cacti are succulents; can animals get nutrients from them? Eating the fruits makes sense, but animals do more than just eat succulent fruit; they even eat the spines! There are so many animals that eat cacti parts of various species.

Some cacti-eating animals include camels, Galapagos land iguanas, jackrabbits, woodrats, Gila woodpeckers, tortoises, squirrels, javelinas, and prairie dogs.

  • Prickly pear cactus
  • Saguaro cactus
  • Barrel cactus
  • Cereus Peruvian cactus

Typically, prickly pear cactus is the most common choice for animals to eat. Perhaps the main reason is that their pads do not have that many spines or thorns as other cacti plants.

WARNING!

Cacti can be poisonous

Some cacti species produce poisonous milk. Whatever you do, never attempt to eat a cactus on your own. Even if you are confident that the cactus is edible, it’s best not to take a risk unless you know about it from an authorized source.

1. Camels

Camels thrive so well in deserts; cacti aren’t new to them at all!

A camel eating cactus

Parts of Cactus that Camels Eat

Prickly pear and jumping cholla cacti are the succulents most eaten by camels. Camels eat all the cacti parts - from pads to spines. These cacti are full of fiber, but camels, being ruminants, can digest these high fiber plants very well.

How do camels eat cacti?

Camels don’t have the same mouth structures that we do. Although found in humans as well, the systems, known as papillae, are much more hardened in camels.

Camels have a hard palate that helps them break down the sharp thorns without feeling any pain. Isn’t that awesome? Not only that, but they also alter the way their upper lips work while they’re eating.

The upper lips of camels are split into two halves. While eating, they use their lips to sense the thorns and control their inner mouth movement likewise.

2. Jackrabbits

These wonderful rabbits are a delight to watch, feeding away on cacti while flopping their long ears.

A jackrabbit with plants in desert

Cacti parts that jackrabbits eat include the pads and flowers.

You will find jackrabbits eating the cacti surface mostly. They are very wise and picky while eating cacti plants, so they avoid the parts that have the most thorns. Other than the base, jackrabbits also eat cacti fruits, along with the seeds. They don’t have a problem digesting the seeds, which they easily pass out while defecating.

How jackrabbits eat cacti

Jackrabbits have soft mouths and they could be very sensitive to cactus thorns. Hence, they work their way from the top to the bottom of the cactus. Taking small nibbles and chewing them well before taking more bites.

3. Galapagos Land Iguanas

Cacti make up about 40-50% of the diet of Galapagos land iguanas!

A galapagos land iguana

The Galapagos land iguanas eat cactus pads and flowers. The thorns are not a problem for them, but they use their feet to remove larger cacti spines.

Cacti parts that Galapagos land iguanas eat

They eat both pads and flowers. They don’t eat spines so they carefully get rid of them.

How Galapagos land iguanas eat cactus

The Galapagos land iguana is very sharp. It knows its environment very well and always gets rid of large cactus spines with the help of its front feet! It swallows the whole cactus in just a few gulps; within a matter of minutes!

4. Tortoises

Tortoises may be slow but they are pretty quick to eat cacti!

A tortoise eating cactus

Cacti parts that tortoises eat

Tortoises can eat pads, flowers, and fruit. Although they feed on pads most of the time.

Although tortoises can eat cacti along with their spines, it is best if you remove the larger ones. If you have a tortoise at home, the Opuntia species is the best to feed them. The pads are not super thorny, so tortoises can feed on them easily.

How tortoises eat cactus

Tortoises are not as flexible as camels when eating cacti and may be difficult for them to feed on cacti with large thorns. However, they make it a quick and easy task for themselves. They take huge bites with their mouths. With a ‘snap’ movement, they pull apart a cactus pad very easily. They also use their tongues to taste the juice of the cactus and chew it thoroughly.

5. The Gila Woodpecker

A Gila woodpecker would also peck on a nearby saguaro cactus!

A gila woodpecker on top of a Saguaro cactus

Gila woodpeckers eat fruits grown on the Saguaro cacti, known as Bidihaj.

Cacti parts that Gila woodpeckers eat

Gila woodpeckers love to feast on all types of cacti fruits. Other than that, these fascinating birds also love to feed on the branches of the saguaro cactus.

How Gila woodpeckers eat cacti

They use the same technique that they do for pecking into wood! Using their sharp beaks, they start making holes into the sides of the saguaro cactus. Sometimes, they use these places to seek refuge and protection from predators and hot temperatures rather than eating.

6. Woodrats

Just a rodent who loves cacti a lot!

A woodrat wandering in the desert

Woodrats living in deserts feast on cacti plants, avoiding the parts that have spines.

Woodrats are also known as packrats or trade rats. You can distinguish them by their long tails and comparatively bigger eyes, to the regular rats.

Cacti parts that woodrats eat

They avoid spines and thorns. They feed on cactus pads, mainly that of the prickly pear cactus, as it also helps them to store water.

How woodrats eat cacti

Woodrats use their sense of navigation, along with their tiny body, to pave their way between the thorns of cacti. But they also make wise use of the thorns. They surround their homes with these thorns to protect themselves from predators.

7. Javelinas

Javelinas put their long, sharp teeth to good use while eating!

A javelina in the desert

Javelinas, also known as collared peccaries, use their tusks to tear apart cacti and eat all parts of it.

Cacti parts that Javelinas eat

Javelinas eat all cacti parts, everything from the fruit to the spines. Mostly, these animals love to eat the Saguaro and the Prickly Pear cacti, but they can eat almost any cactus species that comes in their way.

How Javelinas eat cacti

Javelinas have sharp tusks, just like that of an elephant. Although their teeth may appear smaller and not as tough as those of an elephant, they are capable enough to tear apart the cacti plants. They also use their snouts to detect the portions of the cactus that are safe to eat.

8. Prairie Dogs

This lovely rodent loves to feast on cacti plants!

Praririe dog eating

The black-tailed prairie dog species are the most common inhabitants of desert regions, more likely to feed on cacti when no other food is around.

Prairie dogs can be found in the desert regions of America. There are almost five species of these wonderful, cute rodents. But all prairie dog species have one shared interest - they love to eat plants as they are herbivorous.

Cacti parts that prairie dogs eat

Prairie dogs selectively eat cacti parts, carefully avoiding the thorns and spines.

How prairie dogs eat cacti

Prairie dogs use cactus pads and break them down, they use their hands to support and find the portions worth eating. Mostly, they would start feeding on either the bottom base or the top, and only the surface of the cactus, chewing it thoroughly before proceeding to next bites.

9. Squirrels

Nuts are not the only thing on a squirrel’s diet!

An orange squirrel in the wild

Ground squirrels are rodents who live on the ground and like to eat seeds and fruits of cacti plants.

Do you think squirrels are only fond of nuts? Well, you’ll be amazed at how much they love to eat cacti. Although there are many squirrel species, you’ll mostly find ground squirrels surrounded by their favorite cacti parts.

You can recognize ground squirrels by various fur coat colors ranging from red-orange to various shades of browns and grays. Since these squirrels live on the ground, they are the ones to have cacti in their diet. They’re also more likely to feed on cacti when the weather is too dry to find other types of food around.

Cacti parts that squirrels eat

Squirrels are very sensitive, so they avoid the spines and thorns of cacti plants. They only eat cacti seeds and fruits, their most favorite cactus is the prickly pear cactus.

How squirrels eat cacti

Ground squirrels get hold of cacti pads with their tiny claws. They don’t take large bites out of the cactus, preferring to carefully nibble and chew off the portions around thorns and spines, especially if they are big.

Conclusion

So for some animals, cacti are a part of their diet. For others, cacti are an option only when there is drought and not other types of food around. From rodents to birds, almost all animals especially those living in the desert, don’t mind eating cacti along with their various parts. However, for camels, eating along with spines is easiest due to their hard mouth structure.

Do you wish to learn more about how camels eat cacti along with their thorns so easily? You’ll love to read about the science on how camels eat cactus.

Can Camels Eat Cactus? We have the Answer and the Science behind it!

Ever wondered what camels eat in the desert? Keep reading to find out!

Jimena Bolívar Picture

By Jimena Bolívar

Easy Succulents Founder

My name is Jimena and I'm the the founder of Easy Succulents! I'm fascinated by this wonderful plants and I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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Jimena Bolívar Picture

Jimena Bolívar

Easy Succulents Founder

My name is Jimena and I'm the the founder of Easy Succulents! I'm fascinated by this wonderful plants and I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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