El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve

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Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate
y Gran Desierto de Altar

Reserva de la Biosfera "El Pinacate".jpg

Aerial view of El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve

El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar.png

Location of the Reserve in Mexico
Location Sonora, Mexico
Nearest city Puerto Peñasco
Plutarco Elías Calles
San Luis Río Colorado
Coordinates 32°00′N113°55′W / 32.000°N 113.917°W / 32.000; -113.917 [1] Coordinates: 32°00′N113°55′W / 32.000°N 113.917°W / 32.000; -113.917 [1]
Area 2,695.05 km2 (1,040.56 sq mi) [2]
Established June 10, 1993
Governing body Instituto Nacional de Ecología and Tohono O'odham
Official name El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve
Type Natural
Criteria vii, viii, x
Designated 2013 (37th session)
Reference no. 1410
State Party Mexico
Region Latin America and the Caribbean
Official name Agua Dulce
Designated 2 February 2008
Reference no. 1813 [3]
Tecolote Camp Pinacate Cholla.jpg
Pinacate volcanics with teddy-bear chollas, ocotillos, young saguaros, and a palo verde tree. Photo by Jack Dykinga.
El Pinacate.jpg
Crater Elegante

El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve (Spanish : Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar), is a biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site [1] managed by the Federal government of Mexico, specifically by Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources, in collaboration with state government of Sonora and the Tohono O'odham.

Spanish language Romance language

Spanish or Castilian is a Western Romance language that originated in the Castile region of Spain and today has hundreds of millions of native speakers in the Americas and Spain. It is a global language and the world's second-most spoken native language, after Mandarin Chinese.

Federal government of Mexico

The Federal government of Mexico is the national government of the United Mexican States, the central government established by its constitution to share sovereignty over the republic with the governments of the 31 individual Mexican states, and to represent such governments before international bodies such as the United Nations. The Mexican federal government has three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial and functions per the Constitution of the United Mexican States, as enacted in 1917, and as amended.

Sonora State of Mexico

Sonora, officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Sonora, is one of 31 states that, with Mexico City, comprise the 32 federal entities of United Mexican States. It is divided into 72 municipalities; the capital city is Hermosillo. Sonora is bordered by the states of Chihuahua to the east, Baja California to the northwest and Sinaloa to the south. To the north, it shares the U.S.–Mexico border with the states of Arizona and New Mexico, and on the west has a significant share of the coastline of the Gulf of California.


It is in the Sonoran Desert in northwest Mexico, east of Gulf of California, in the eastern part Gran Desierto de Altar, just below the border of Arizona, United States and north of the city of Puerto Peñasco. It is one of the most significant visible landforms in North America seen from space. A volcanic system, known as Santa Clara is the main part of the landscape, including three peaks; Pinacate, Carnegie and Medio.

Sonoran Desert North American desert

The Sonoran Desert is a North American desert which covers large parts of the Southwestern United States in Arizona and California and of Northwestern Mexico in Sonora, Baja California, and Baja California Sur. It is the hottest desert in Mexico. It has an area of 260,000 square kilometers (100,000 sq mi). The western portion of the United States–Mexico border passes through the Sonoran Desert.

Gulf of California A gulf of the Pacific Ocean between the Baja peninsula and the Mexican mainland

The Gulf of California is a marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean that separates the Baja California Peninsula from the Mexican mainland. It is bordered by the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sonora, and Sinaloa with a coastline of approximately 4,000 km (2,500 mi). Rivers which flow into the Gulf of California include the Colorado, Fuerte, Mayo, Sinaloa, Sonora, and the Yaqui. The gulf's surface area is about 160,000 km2 (62,000 sq mi). Depths range from fording at the estuary near Yuma, Arizona, to in excess of 3,000 meters (9,800 ft) in the deepest parts.

Gran Desierto de Altar

The Gran Desierto de Altar is one of the major sub-ecoregions of the Sonoran Desert, located in the State of Sonora, Northwest Mexico. It includes the only active erg dune region in North America. The desert extends across much of the northern border of the Gulf of California, reaching more than 100 kilometres (62 mi) east to west, and over 50 kilometres (31 mi) north to south. It constitutes the largest continuous wilderness area within the Sonoran Desert.

In the area there are over 540 species of plants, 40 species of mammals, 200 of birds, 40 of reptiles, also amphibians and freshwater fishes. [4] There are threatened endemic species as sonoran pronghorn, bighorn sheep, gila monster and desert tortoise. [5]

In biology, a species ( ) is the basic unit of classification and a taxonomic rank of an organism, as well as a unit of biodiversity. A species is often defined as the largest group of organisms in which any two individuals of the appropriate sexes or mating types can produce fertile offspring, typically by sexual reproduction. Other ways of defining species include their karyotype, DNA sequence, morphology, behaviour or ecological niche. In addition, paleontologists use the concept of the chronospecies since fossil reproduction cannot be examined. While these definitions may seem adequate, when looked at more closely they represent problematic species concepts. For example, the boundaries between closely related species become unclear with hybridisation, in a species complex of hundreds of similar microspecies, and in a ring species. Also, among organisms that reproduce only asexually, the concept of a reproductive species breaks down, and each clone is potentially a microspecies.

Endemism ecological state of being unique to a defined geographic location or habitat

Endemism is the ecological state of a species being unique to a defined geographic location, such as an island, nation, country or other defined zone, or habitat type; organisms that are indigenous to a place are not endemic to it if they are also found elsewhere. The extreme opposite of endemism is cosmopolitan distribution. An alternative term for a species that is endemic is precinctive, which applies to species that are restricted to a defined geographical area.

The biosphere reserve covers an area of 2,695.05 square kilometres (1,040.56 sq mi) [2] making up about half of the World Heritage site. The extent of the World Heritage site is 7,146 km², [6] [7] greater than that of the states of Aguascalientes, Colima, Morelos and Tlaxcala separated. [8]

Aguascalientes State of Mexico

Aguascalientes, officially the Free and Sovereign State of Aguascalientes, is one of the 31 states which, with Mexico City, comprise the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. It is divided into 11 municipalities and its capital city is Aguascalientes.

Colima State of Mexico

Colima, officially the Free and Sovereign State of Colima, is one of the 32 states that make up the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. It shares its name with its capital and main city, Colima.

Morelos State of Mexico

Morelos, officially the Free and Sovereign State of Morelos, is one of the 32 states, which comprise the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. It is divided in 36 municipalities and its capital city is Cuernavaca.


El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve is known for its unique physical and biological characteristics, by the presence of a volcanic shield, and by the extensive areas of active dunes that surround it, and the greatest concentration of Maar craters. The Pinacate Mountains range has orogenic features of high interest, products of volcanic eruptions that accumulated lava in compact rocks, sand and volcanic ashes that formed colors of special beauty, and craters such as El Elegante, Cerro Colorado, MacDougal, and Sykes. [9]

Dune A hill of loose sand built by aeolian processes or the flow of water

In physical geography, a dune is a hill of loose sand built by aeolian processes (wind) or the flow of water. Dunes occur in different shapes and sizes, formed by interaction with the flow of air or water. Most kinds of dunes are longer on the stoss (upflow) side, where the sand is pushed up the dune, and have a shorter "slip face" in the lee side. The valley or trough between dunes is called a slack. A "dune field" or erg is an area covered by extensive dunes.

Maar Low-relief volcanic crater

A maar is a broad, low-relief volcanic crater caused by a phreatomagmatic eruption. A maar characteristically fills with water to form a relatively shallow crater lake which may also be called a maar. The name comes from a Moselle Franconian dialect word used for the circular lakes of the Daun area of Germany. Maars are shallow, flat-floored craters that scientists interpret as having formed above diatremes as a result of a violent expansion of magmatic gas or steam; deep erosion of a maar presumably would expose a diatreme. Maars range in size from 60 to 8,000 m across and from 10 to 200 m deep; most maars commonly fill with water to form natural lakes. Most maars have low rims composed of a mixture of loose fragments of volcanic rocks and rocks torn from the walls of the diatreme.

Pinacate Peaks

The Pinacate Peaks (Picos del Pinacate), a group of volcanic peaks and cinder cones, are located in the Reserve north of Puerto Peñasco. The highest peak is Cerro del Pinacate (Santa Clara volcano), with an elevation of 3,904 feet (1,190 m). Pinacate comes from Náhuatl language word pinacatl, for the Pinacate beetle, a stink beetle endemic to the Sonoran Desert.

Pinacate Peaks mountains

The Pinacate Peaks are a group of volcanic peaks and cinder cones located mostly in the Mexican state of Sonora along the international border adjacent to the U.S. state of Arizona, surrounded by the vast sand dune field of the Gran Desierto de Altar, at the desert's southeast.

Cinder cone A steep conical hill of loose pyroclastic fragments around a volcanic vent

A cinder cone is a steep conical hill of loose pyroclastic fragments, such as either volcanic clinkers, cinders, volcanic ash, or cinder that has been built around a volcanic vent. They consist of loose pyroclastic debris formed by explosive eruptions or lava fountains from a single, typically cylindrical, vent. As the gas-charged lava is blown violently into the air, it breaks into small fragments that solidify and fall as either cinders, clinkers, or scoria around the vent to form a cone that often is symmetrical; with slopes between 30–40°; and a nearly circular ground plan. Most cinder cones have a bowl-shaped crater at the summit.

Puerto Peñasco Town in Sonora, Mexico

Puerto Peñasco is a resort town located in Puerto Peñasco Municipality in the northwest of the Mexican state of Sonora, 100 kilometres (62 mi) from the border with the U.S. state of Arizona. According to the 2015 census, it has a population of 62,177 inhabitants. It is located on the northern shores of the Sea of Cortez on the small strip of land that joins the Baja California Peninsula with the rest of Mexico. The area is part of the Altar Desert, one of the driest and hottest areas of the larger Sonoran Desert.

The Pinacate Peaks volcanoes have erupted sporadically for about 4 million years. The most recent activity was about 11 000 years ago.

NASA sent astronauts to the Gran Desierto de Altar from 1965 to 1970, to train for walking on the moon, due to the similarities of the terrain to the lunar surface.


Tohono O'odham woman. Photo by Edward S. Curtis, circa 1907. Luzi - Papago.jpg
Tohono O'odham woman. Photo by Edward S. Curtis, circa 1907.

Pre-Columbian era

The first inhabitants are known as San Dieguito people, they were hunter-gatherer who lived off the land, moving from the mountains to the sea of Gulf of California looking for food. The early stages of occupation seem to have ended at the beginning of ice age about 20 thousand years ago, when drought forced people to leave the mountain range. [10]

A second stage of occupation by San Dieguito people began in the late glacial period. This group returned to the mountains and lived as their ancestors had. Tinajas must have been a reliable source of water during this time. The second stage of occupation ended with the arrival of an antipyretic period 9000 years ago, which again forced the people to leave the territory. [4]

The most recent indigenous inhabitants of the Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar are the Pinacateño band of the Hia C-ed O'odham. Like the prehistoric San Dieguito culture, the Pinacateños roamed the Pinacate all the way to the sea in search of food, concentrating their camps near the tinajas. During these voyages, they left signs of their presence; one example of this is the network of paths that go from tinaja to tinaja, as well as the stone tools and potsherds found near these water sources. [4] [11]


There are few records of those who were the first explorers in this area. Possibly the first white man to see the mountain now known as Sierra Pinacate was the explorer Melchior Díaz on 1540. Subsequently, on 1698 the priest Eusebio Kino, founder of Mission San Xavier del Bac in southern Tucson, Arizona, visited the site and returned on several occasions, he and his group climbed to the top of El Pinacate, which named Santa Clara Hill. [4]

Before 1956, few scientists and explorers had been in El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar, the most famous, the group MacDougal, Hornaday and Sykes who explored the western part of the mountain on 1907.

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Yuma Desert

The Yuma Desert is a lower-elevation section of the Sonoran Desert in the southwestern United States and the northwest of Mexico. It lies in the Salton basin. The desert contains areas of sparse vegetation and has notable areas of sand dunes. With an average rainfall less than 8 inches (200 mm) each year, this is among the harshest deserts in North America. Human presence is sparse throughout, the largest city being Yuma, Arizona, on the Colorado River and the border of California.

Federal Highway 8 is a free part of the federal highways corridors in Sonora. It is connected to the roadway that transitions from the border post at Lukeville, Arizona where it connects with Arizona State Route 85, proceeds south through Puerto Peñasco with Sonoyta, Sonora, and intersects with Fed. 2. It continues through the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve until ending at Puerto Peñasco, a length of 100 km (62 mi).

Lechuguilla Desert

The Lechuguilla Desert is a small desert located in southwestern Arizona near the U.S.-Mexico border. It is considered to be part of the Lower Colorado Valley region of the Sonoran Desert. It lies in a north-south direction between the Gila Mountains and the Cabeza Prieta Mountains, and almost entirely in the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. The desert is named after the Lechuguilla plant, known scientifically as Agave lecheguilla which according to the Wikipedia entry for that occurs exclusively in the Chihuahuan desert many hundreds of miles to the east. The desert is also on the north border of the Gran Desierto de Altar of Sonora, Mexico.

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Tinajas Altas Mountains

The Tinajas Altas Mountains are an extremely arid northwest-southeast trending mountain range in southern Yuma County, Arizona, approximately 35 mi southeast of Yuma, Arizona. The southern end of the range extends approximately one mile into the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora on the northern perimeter of the Gran Desierto de Altar. The range is about 22 mi in length and about 4 mi wide at its widest point. The highpoint of the range is unnamed and is 2,766 feet above sea level and is located at 32°16'26"N, 114°02'48"W. Aside from the portion of the range in Mexico, the entirety of the range lies within the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. They lie at the heart of the traditional homeland of the Hia C-eḍ O'odham people.

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Sierra Pinta

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Tinaja is a term originating in the American Southwest for surface pockets (depressions) formed in bedrock that occur below waterfalls, are carved out by spring flow or seepage, or are caused by sand and gravel scouring in intermittent streams (arroyos). Tinajas are an important source of surface water storage in arid environments.

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El Elegante Crater volcanic crater

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Exequiel Ezcurra Argentine plant ecologist and conservationist

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  1. 1 2 3 UNESCO. "El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve" . Retrieved June 24, 2013.
  2. 1 2 "El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve" . Retrieved 15 June 2018.
  3. "Agua Dulce". Ramsar Sites Information Service. Retrieved 25 April 2018.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas. "Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar" . Retrieved September 29, 2010.
  5. Red Escolar. "Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar" . Retrieved September 29, 2010.
  6. Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad. "Regiones terrestres prioritarias de México" (PDF). Retrieved September 29, 2010.
  7. "El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar World Heritage Site" . Retrieved 15 June 2018.
  8. INEGI. "Información por entidad". Archived from the original on 2011-07-23.
  9. Instituto Nacional de Ecología. "Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar". Archived from the original on July 22, 2011. Retrieved September 29, 2010.
  10. Hayden, 1998.
  11. "Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar". Red Escolar. Retrieved September 29, 2010.