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Life on the Rocks

Life on the Rocks is a multi-species exhibit at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum that gives an in-depth look at the habitat and species most often encountered amidst Tucson's rocky slopes. This interactive exhibit takes visitors through the above and below ground wonder of this unique region by featuring the mammals and birds, invertebrates, reptiles, fishes, plants and minerals in what could be called the Museum's most ambitious and dramatic natural exhibit to date.

Habitat-based Exhibit

Rattlesnake
Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)

The narrow canyon exhibit is situated at the entrance of the Desert Loop Trail on the southern section of the Museum grounds. The exhibit is adjacent to the large rock dome, which was constructed at the same time as the loop trail featuring coyote and javelina, in order to minimize impact on collection animals on exhibit. In the future, the rock dome is slated to open with "Hidden in the Midden", an interactive learning/play space, which will allow visitors to explore the desert from the perspective of a packrat, the Sonoran Desert's first archivist. The canyon around Life on the Rocks was created from molds of real granite boulders with natural soil planters incorporated into the massive rock outcrops to house native vegetation. To reinforce the illusion of nature, great care was taken to conceal visual distractions such as service doors, irrigation, and other mechanical support systems. The exhibit was designed, engineered and constructed entirely in-house, pulling from the vast knowledge of the Desert Museum's exhibit and curatorial staff.

Ground Squirrel
Harris' Antelope Ground Squirrel (Ammospermophilus harrisii)

"The complexity of an exhibit such as Life on the Rocks is basically unparalled in the zoo community," explains Dr. Richard Brusca, Executive Director Emeritus. "To show the whole habitat with the vegetation, geology, and multi-species interactivity, presents a complete picture of the ecosystem," Dr. Brusca continues, "And this is how we can best show the amazing interconnectivity in our natural world to develop true appreciation and foster future conservation."

The Life on the Rocks canyon is a combination of several individual enclosures and exhibits. Some are spacious, mesh-topped enclosures with natural soils and vegetation; others are glass-fronted crevices or cutaway burrows in simulated soil banks. Both the hog-nosed skunk and Harris antelope ground squirrel have individual, large above ground enclosures as well as underground burrows that are visible through a cutaway, glass front.

This ability to see 'into the rocks' continues in the large multi-species enclosure exhibiting Gila monsters and several species of snakes. A maze of glass-fronted burrows makes it easy to observe these reptiles even when they go underground. In the same dirt bank are several more separate burrows that contain species such as tarantula and black-tailed rattlesnake that aren't amenable to the mixed species arrangement, though they could be encountered together in the wild.

Road Runner
Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus)

In the other large mixed species enclosure, visitors view a serene desert setting with a rocky waterfall flowing into a small pond and gravelly stream that is home to several desert fish, lizards, toads, and frogs. Several kinds of birds will also find a home in the exhibit. Adjacent to this enclosure, visitors experience bats, banded gecko, and the Sonoran lyre snake.

Perhaps the most amazing innovations in the design and engineering of the exhibit are found behind the scenes. Burrows and access doors were each site engineered with a system of cables and counterweights on steel frames that can be pivoted open into the underground service areas. Exhibits that house venomous creatures needed even further design consideration with the addition of shift doors and concealed peep windows to ensure keeper safety when tending to the enclosure. The end result is a one-of-a-kind design that is the product of much experimentation and persistent fine-tuning.

46 Species Can Call Exhibit Home

Birds and mammals that are slated for exhibit are:

Invertebrate, reptile, amphibian and fish collection animals may include: