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Species of the week: The Creeping Devil

Each Wednesday, One Earth’s “Species of the Week” series highlights a relatively unknown and fascinating species to showcase the beauty, diversity, and remarkable characteristics of our shared planet Earth.

Come across some Creeping Devil in the desert and you might think someone had walked through a cactus field with a machete. But no, this rare species of cactus lies horizontally on the ground in colonies, with only its tip slightly raised toward the sun, looking like a thorny bed of snakes. And somewhat like snakes, the creeping devil can crawl across the desert. 

Also known by its scientific name, Stenocereus eruca, the creeping devil is endemic to the northwestern Mexican state of Baja California Sur, and is the only known moving cactus in the world. Its prostrate positioning plays a role in the plant’s survival in isolation, but also in its capacity to migrate along the desert over long periods of time. It does so by growing horizontally from its stem while simultaneously killing off its rear end. It sprouts new roots to anchor itself as well as to absorb water and nutrition as it slowly crawls across the desert floor. Its back end disintegrates and assimilates with the soil, providing nutrients back into the plant through the roots. In a way, the creeping devil has to kill off part of itself to move, but this dead part then nourishes the new living part.

The creeping devil’s speed of travel, which is synonymous with its rate of growth, is dependent on the climate where it grows. In its native locale, where the climate is moist and marine, it travels at the rate of two feet per year. 

This cactus reproduces sexually, but because of its isolation and scarcity of pollinators in its native climate, it also reproduces by cloning parts of itself breaking from the bases, which then die and grow independently as a new plant.

Unfortunately, this mysterious and unique cactus is currently on Mexico’s list of endangered plants, largely due to illegal trafficking. Because of its rarity, cactus collectors will pay large sums of money to add it to their private succulent gardens. A single creeping devil stem can sell for $4,000 – $5,000 on the black market.

However, this remarkable cactus also faces threats from the agricultural industry. Farmers will destroy entire colonies to give way to their grazing cattle, for whom the creeping devil is both a nuisance and a barrier to grazing.

If left alone, a creeping devil plant can live for up to 100 years.