North American wildlife
North American wildlife is the flora and fauna of the Nearctic region, which consists of most of North America; Greenland, the continental parts of Canada and the United States, and inland Mexico. The region borders the Central and South American wildlife region.
Many North American species, especially in the Arctic and boreal regions, are similar to Eurasian wildlife.
|Major wildlife regions
North America • Central & South America • Africa • Madagascar • Eurasia • South & Southeast Asia • Australasia • Arctic • Southern Ocean
|What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
The Nearctic realm is divided between four bioregions, making up the northern, western, eastern and southern part of the continent.
The west is contained by the Rocky Mountains. The region has great variations in elevation, temperature and rainfall within rather short distances.
The east makes up the eastern United States, as well as southeastern Canada, and the Canadian Prairie. Much of this region is exploited through farming and human settlement.
The south includes inland Mexico, as well as the desert region of the United States, and Texas.
North America is famous for its many carnivores, especially bears, wolves, foxes, coyotes, lynx, bobcats, and cougars (mountain lions). Jaguars (Panthera onca) range throughout Mexico, Central America, and the southwestern United States. These carnivores make up keystone species for their ecosystems. Many of them have been endangered, or locally extinct during the 20th century, but are recovering.
You can see alligators in swamps all over coastal areas of the South, and especially in Louisiana and Florida. Everglades National Park has both alligators and crocodiles. Crocodiles are quite common in Mexico and the countries of Central America, where another member of the crocodile family, the caiman (or cayman) is common in marshes, rivers, and similar wetland environments. Though often regarded as smaller versions of crocodiles, some caimans (such as the black caiman) reach sizes as long as 4 meters.
While the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) can be found in Eurasia as well, two variants of the species can only be found in the wild in North America. One of them is the silver fox, which has black instead of orange fur, while the other is the cross fox, which is partially melanistic and features both orange and black patches of fur.
Several variants of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) can only be found in North America. One is the Mexican gray wolf (sometimes referred to as the lobo), which used to be found in much of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, but is now critically endangered and down to only over a hundred individuals in the wild. The northwestern wolf can be found in much of Alaska, western Canada and the northwestern United States. It was once hunted to extinction in Yellowstone National Park, but has since been successfully reintroduced. The eastern wolf is found in Ontario, southern Quebec, the Midwest and New England. The northern Rocky Mountain wolf, as the name suggests, is found in the northern parts of the rocky mountains stretching from the American states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming all the way up into Canada's Yukon territory.
In the temperate regions of the United States and Canada, such as Banff National Park and Yellowstone National Park, the two species of bears you are mostly likely to encounter are the American black bear and the brown bear. The population of brown bears that inhabits continental North America is often called the grizzly bear. Grizzly bears tend to be larger in size and have longer claws than black bears. The polar bear, the largest species of bear in the world, can be found further north, mostly in the tundras of northern Canada and Alaska.
The American bison (Bison bison), also called the buffalo, is not closely related to the Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) or the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer). It is the heaviest endemic land animal on the continent. The bison used to be a dominant species of the Great Plains until modern times. At the brink of extinction near 1900, the population is on the rise again. Two distinct subspecies exist: the plains bison (B. b. bison) and the wood bison (B. b. athabascae). The only place to see both subspecies in a relatively free-ranging environment is at Elk Island National Park, in Alberta, Canada.
The mustangs are a population of feral horses (Equus ferus caballus) on the Great Plains, descending from colonists' horses.
The muskox (Ovibos moschatus) is a large bovid distantly related to bison and cattle, and more closely to sheep and goats. Averaging about 600 lb (270 kg), with the larger males weighing up to 900 lb (410 kg), it is native to the high Arctic, mainly in Canada and Greenland with a reintroduced population in Alaska. The species is noted for the large curved horns of both sexes, its very thick coat, and the strong odor emitted by males during the annual rut (mating season).
North America has six native deer species:
- The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the most widely distributed ungulate on the continent, though more prevalent east of the Rockies. The species varies widely in size; males average about 150 pounds (70 kg) and females 100 lb (45 kg), but the endangered Key deer (O. v. clavium) of the Florida Keys is noticeably smaller, while bucks (males) in more northern populations can weigh over 400 lb (180 kg). While the Key deer is listed by the U.S. government as endangered, and the Columbian white-tailed deer (O. v. leucurus) of Oregon and Washington is considered threatened, the species as a whole is in no danger of extinction, with an estimated population of 35 million in the U.S. alone, with many millions more in Canada, Mexico, and Central America. In fact, in many suburban and agricultural areas in the U.S. and Canada, the white-tail has become a major pest, consuming significant amounts of ornamental and cash crops. Additionally, over a million deer–vehicle collisions occur annually in the U.S., resulting in about 300 human deaths, and deer are major carriers of the ticks that spread the bacterium that causes Lyme disease in humans.
- The mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) is native to western North America, especially the Rocky Mountain region. It averages slightly larger than the white-tail, though environmental conditions can cause large size variations between populations. An exception is the Sitka deer subspecies (O. h. sitkensis) of coastal regions in southeast Alaska and northeast British Columbia, with males and females respectively averaging only about 120 lb (55 kg) and 80 lb (36 kg).
- Caribou is the common North American name for a group of deer in the genus Rangifer that has been reclassified from one species to six in the current century. (Outside North America, these deer are known as "reindeer".) Of these species, two are native to North America. Deer in this genus are the only ones in which both sexes normally grow antlers. Originally, the genus ranged throughout Canada, Alaska, and the far north of the contiguous U.S., but climate change and human disruption of habitat have caused it to almost completely disappear from the contiguous U.S. and greatly reduced its numbers elsewhere.
- The arctic caribou (R. arcticus) is split into eight subspecies, one of which was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. The range of the surviving subspecies stretches from Alaska through Canada and into Greenland. Males of the smallest subspecies, the Peary caribou (R. a. pearyi) of the Canadian high Arctic, average roughly 240 lb (110 kg), while males of the largest subspecies, the Rocky Mountain caribou (R. a. fortidens) of the Canadian Rockies, can weigh up to 800 lb (360 kg).
- The woodland caribou (R. caribou) is split into three subspecies, all of which live only in Canada's boreal forests. The only one with reliable size data is the boreal woodland caribou (R. c. caribou), whose males average about 400 lb (180 kg) and are as large as 600 lb (270 kg).
- The elk (Cervus canadensis), also known as the wapiti, is closely related to the red deer of Eurasia. It is one of the largest deer, with both males and females averaging significantly larger than most caribou. The species once ranged through most of the U.S. and Canada except for tundra, true deserts, and the Gulf of Mexico coast, but overhunting and forest clearing wiped out populations east of the Great Plains. The species as a whole has significantly recovered, and the descendants of relocated western elk are now thriving in many eastern states and provinces.
- The moose (known in Europe as the elk), Alces alces, is the world's largest deer species, with the largest males standing nearly 7 feet (2.1 m) at the shoulders and weighing upward of 1500 lb (700 kg). It can readily be distinguished from other deer not only by size, but also bodily form (very robust body supported by unusually long legs), broad hooves, and most notably the very broad and shovel-shaped antlers grown by males during the warmer months. The species mainly inhabits temperate and boreal forests. Populations remain stable in arctic and subarctic regions, but have declined significantly in the 21st century in the contiguous U.S. Moose–vehicle collisions, while not as common as collisions with white-tails or mule deer, are especially dangerous to humans because an adult moose's center of mass is above the hood of most passenger cars. Because of this, a direct collision with a moose will usually send the body directly into the hood and windshield, crushing the front roof beams and anyone sitting in the front seats.
The pronghorn, Antilocapra americana, often called "antelope" and sometimes "speed goat", is the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere. While the cheetah of Africa and Asia is faster, the pronghorn can sustain its maximum speed for much longer. It can be found in open country throughout the western Great Plains, the Great Basin, and into northern Mexico. Pronghorns are about the size of smaller deer, with males averaging about 110 lb (50 kg) and females about 95 lb (45 kg). The animal's name comes from the branched horns of males, which unlike those of deer have a bony core. Females have smaller and usually unbranched horns. In the 1920s, it was threatened with extinction, but strong conservation efforts have led to a major recovery. While populations in Mexico and Arizona remain endangered, the species as a whole is safe, with as many as 1 million individuals living today. Like deer, they are popular game animals within their range.
The mountain goat, Oreamnos americanus, is another popular game animal. Despite its name, it is not a true goat. It is native to mountainous regions of western North America, with the traditional range extending from Idaho and Wyoming, through Canada, and into southeast Alaska. The species has also been successfully introduced to mountain areas as far south as Colorado. Featuring thick white coats and short horns in both sexes, mountain goat billies (males) average up to 300 lb (140 kg), with nannies (females) about 30% smaller.
North America also has two species of wild sheep.
- The Dall sheep (Ovis dalli), also known as thinhorn sheep, is native to mountainous regions in the far northwest of the continent, ranging from northern British Columbia through the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska. The name "Dall sheep" is commonly used to refer solely to the northern subspecies O. d. dalli; the southern subspecies, O. d. stonei, is more commonly called "Stone's sheep". In both subspecies, rams average around 180 lb/82 kg and ewes around 110 lb/50 kg. Also, rams have large curled horns, while ewes have small and slender horns.
- The bighorn sheep (O. canadensis) is also native to mountainous areas in the west of the continent, but its range overlaps very little with that of Dall sheep, extending from British Columbia and Alberta in the north to the Baja California peninsula. Historically, seven subspecies were recognized, but modern DNA analysis has reduced this to three. All subspecies are noted for the large spiraling horns of rams, with ewes having much smaller horns with little curl.
- The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (O. c. canadensis) is the largest, widest-ranging (from BC to Arizona), and by far the most numerous. Rams can weigh over 300 lb/140 kg; ewes are about two-thirds the size. They are fairly popular game animals, though hunting is carefully regulated.
- The Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (O. c. sierrae) is found only in the Sierra Nevada of California. It's noticeably smaller than its Rocky Mountain cousin, with rams reaching at most 220 lb/100 kg. Listed by the US federal government as endangered; hunting of this subspecies is prohibited.
- The desert bighorn sheep (O. c. nelsoni) is native to the deserts of the southwestern US and Mexico's Baja California peninsula. The subspecies varies widely in size by individual population; the largest rams can reach 280 lb/127 kg, but some populations feature rams that are even smaller than those of Dall sheep. US authorities consider the subspecies vulnerable but not endangered; very limited numbers of hunting permits are issued in states within its range, with most fees funding continued conservation efforts.
Though locals see them as pests, raccoons fascinate some visitors (so much so that they have been exported as pets and become an invasive species in other countries). With black "masks" around their eyes and ringed tails, raccoons are easy to recognize if you see them. They're very intelligent and have adapted well to human residential areas, where they're notorious for digging through people's garbage to find food. They're mostly nocturnal, so you'll have to get lucky to spot one.
Somewhat similar to raccoons are coatimundis (also known as coatis). Their long tails make them look almost like monkeys or lemurs. They're diurnal, so you might see them out during either daylight or nighttime hours. Coatimundi are common throughout Central America and Mexico, and have frequently been sighted in the southwestern United States (they range well into South America as well).
Skunks are notorious for their pungent, stinky spray, so don't get close. Most have a distinctive black and white striped pattern.
Squirrels are very common in suburban and even urban areas. The chipmunk is something like a smaller version of a squirrel with a striped back.
The American pika (Ochotona princeps), a relative of rabbits and hares but smaller in size with smaller ears, can be found in above the tree line in mountainous regions in western North America, stretching from the Rocky Mountains at the border between British Columbia and Alberta all the way down south to the Sierra Nevada mountains of California and Nevada.
The groundhog or woodchuck is a burrowing animal common in large parts of the eastern United States and Canada. It's celebrated on the holiday of Groundhog Day (February 2), when according to superstition a groundhog comes out of its burrow and looks around. If it sees its shadow, it goes back down and there will be six more weeks of winter; otherwise, spring will come. In many locations around the US and Canada, a ceremony is held where you can watch a groundhog to see what it predicts—the most famous one is in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) has the widest range of the armadillo species, ranging from the southeast quadrant of the U.S. through Mexico, Central America, and much of South America. It's the only armadillo native to the U.S., and has been steadily expanding its range northward in the 21st century, with the only limit being its inability to adapt to arid regions or cold winters. A mostly nocturnal burrowing animal that eats mainly insects, also eating bird eggs and many animals that are small enough for it to hunt, it's viewed as a pest in many places in the U.S. (especially Texas) because of its opportunistic egg-eating. They can jump straight up as much as 4 feet (1.2 m) when sufficiently frightened, making them a significant danger on roads. Dead armadillos are a somewhat common roadside sight in the animal's range.
Many birds of the continent are migratory, and can only be seen seasonally.
Turkeys are indigenous to North America, of which there are two species; the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), from which the domestic turkey was derived, is found in much of the eastern half of the United States, as well as southern Ontario in Canada, and parts of northern Mexico, while the ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) is found in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Although wild turkeys spend most of their time foraging on the ground, unlike domestic turkeys, they are capable of flying short distances to escape from predators, and usually roost in trees at night.
The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States, and can be seen in most of Canada, the continental United States and northern Mexico. Despite its menacing look, its vocalizations resemble high-pitched chirps and sound rather tame; in Hollywood films it is usually dubbed over by the vocalization of a red-tailed hawk instead to sound more menacing.
Elephant seals live along the west coast, as does the harmless leopard shark. Florida is known for its manatee populations, which have been threatened since the late 19th century as overdevelopment threatens their habitats. Manatees can also be found in Mexico and Central American countries.
The Venus flytrap is native to an area of North and South Carolina within a 60-mile (100-km) radius of Wilmington. Other carnivorous plants (sundews, pitcher plants, bladderworts, and butterworts) can be seen in the area as well. Try Carolina Beach State Park, Croatan National Forest near the Crystal Coast, or Green Swamp near Wilmington.
The bright orange California poppy covers hillsides in parts of California, where it's the state flower, in spring, summer, and fall. One good place to see the flowers is Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in Antelope Valley.
Redwoods are a subfamily of trees including the tallest and the largest trees in the world, found only in California and Oregon (the closely related trees in China are much smaller). These trees can live thousands of years and have a complex and fascinating life cycle involving cones that grow after wildfires. Though they are endangered due to human activity, you can see them in beautiful nature reserves like Muir Woods near San Francisco.
- Canadian national parks
- United States national parks, and other nature reserves in the United States National Park System
- Mexico national parks