Ranging from Alaska to the Rocky Mountains, and right down to sunny California, North America boasts an amazingly broad range of landscapes. With this diversity come many unique and interesting animals.
Cougar (Puma concolor)
The cougar, also known as the puma, mountain lion, or panther, is a large, solitary, nocturnal cat that occurs in a wide range of habitats across both North and South America. Baby cougars have spotted coats, but these become a solid light brown at the age of about six months. An interesting fact about cougars is that they can’t roar – although they can purr. Also, the cougar is the second heaviest of the cats in the western hemisphere, after the jaguar.
Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis)
The Carolina anole is a tree-dwelling lizard that lives largely in the south-east of the United States. It’s also known as the American or red-throated anole. Like a chameleon, the Carolina anole can change its colors. Brown and a black semi-circle behind the eyes indicate that the animal is under stress. Especially in the case of the male, the Carolina anole is highly territorial. It may also drop its tail to escape a predator.
Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
Always favourites in children’s stories and folk tales, raccoons are clever, highly adaptable, nocturnal mammals found throughout the Americas. They’re omnivores and have a reputation for eating just about anything, including whatever they can scavenge from people.
Raccoons develop their characteristic black eye patches and tail rings only a few days after they’re born. They have a life span of roughly six years in the wild.
American moose (Alces americanus)
The moose is the largest member of the deer family. Male moose grow the largest antlers of any known animal. These can reach almost 2 metres in diameter, and may be used in spectacular fights during the mating season. The antlers are shed and then regrown each year.
In the province of New Brunswick in Canada, vehicle collisions with moose are a fairly common occurrence – so much so that all new highways have fences to keep moose off the roads. Road hazards notwithstanding, moose in the wild have an average life span of 17 years.
Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri)
The lovely Black-chinned Hummingbird is a small, metallic green hummingbird with a straight bill that reaches a maximum of a little over 8 centimetres in length. The male includes a distinctive purple band around the throat and a forked tail, while the female has a more rounded tail.
Black-chinned hummingbirds thrive in semi-arid conditions in the west of the United States, and migrate to Mexico for the winter. They feed on both nectar and insects.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
Since 1782, the Bald Eagle has been the national symbol of the United States. This eagle isn’t actually bald – its name was derived from an old English word meaning “white”. It occurs over most of North America and in Mexico. Bald Eagles eat mostly fresh-water fish and so thrive near open bodies of water. They build the largest nests, weighing up to about a metric ton, of any birds in North America, and fly at an amazing speed of up to 70 kilometres per hour. Thanks to conservation efforts, Bald Eagle populations within the United States have recovered to the extent that they’ve been removed from the government’s list of endangered species.
North American Beaver (Castor canadensis)
The North American beaver, with its distinctive flattened tail and strong teeth, is the largest rodent in North America. It’s also the national symbol of Canada and the state animal for both Oregon and New York.
The beaver builds dome-shaped lodges made from sticks and mud in ponds. The lodges have entrances only under the water, and the water has to be sufficiently deep that it doesn’t freeze at the level of these entrances in winter. If a pond isn’t deep enough, a beaver may build one or more dams upstream, to get the water to the required depth. The beaver then spends the winter months largely inside its lodge. A beaver can stay submerged for about 15 minutes at a time, and can swim at a speed of up to 8 kilometres per hour.
Brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos)
Brown bears are large, solitary bears found in North America, as well as in Europe and some parts of Asia. An adult brown bear may weigh as much as 680 kilograms, and is characterized by a long muzzle and a large, muscular shoulder hump. It eats small mammals and fish, as well as plants, roots and berries. During winter, brown bears sleep in dens. However, they’re not true hibernators and can be easily awakened.
In North America, brown bear attacks on people result in an average of two deaths each year. The bears typically try to avoid people but will attack if threatened or surprised.
American toad (Bufo americanus)
The American toad is found throughout Canada and the eastern United States. It includes three subspecies of toads – the eastern American toad, the dwarf American toad and the more rare Hudson Bay toad. Based on analysis of DNA, it’s thought that the American toad is descended from South American toads that crossed into North America, presumably by means of rafting, before the Panama land bridge was formed.
California ground squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi)
California ground squirrels occur in the western United States, with the largest numbers in California and Oregon. They may live in communal burrows, in which case each squirrel has its own entrance. Typically this type of squirrel doesn’t venture more than about 25 metres from its burrow. In areas where it snows during winter, they hibernate. In other areas, they remain active throughout the year.
Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
The common gartersnake occurs throughout North America, right from northern Canada through to Central America. In fact, it’s the only snake in the world found as far north as Alaska. Gartersnakes have large litters, with as many as 98 snakes recorded in a single litter. They can use pheromones to find other snakes.
The gartersnake is the state reptile for Massachusetts.
Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
Among the most beautiful of North American birds, the Blue Jay is actually related to the crow. It’s known as a noisy bird and can imitate the songs of other birds. Male and female Blue Jays are almost identical in appearance. They eat fruit, nuts, insects and, when they can get them, other birds’ eggs. They build cup-shaped nests and the females lay between three and seven eggs per clutch.
Interestingly, the blue color of the Blue Jay’s feathers isn’t a result of pigment but of the way the structure of the feathers refract light. If you crush one of the feathers, the blue disappears.
Yellow jacket (Vespula squamosa)
Yellow jackets include several species of aggressive, black and yellow wasps that live in colonies. They construct complex nests using paper, which they make by chewing plant fibres and wood.
Each year, all the wasps except for newly mated queens die. The queens typically burrow to survive the winter months. Yellow jackets are feared by people because of their painful stings but are important predators or pest insects.
North American river otter (Lutra Canadensis)
The North American river otter is known for its sense of play, romping with other otters and diving or somersaulting in the water. The otter builds underground burrows close to water, typically with several entrances. Females produce litters of between one and six youngsters.
Populations of river otters have declined dramatically, due to loss of habitat and sensitivity to environmental pollution. However, projects designed to reintroduce the otter to various habitats have helped prevent further drops in their numbers.
Eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)
The strikingly coloured eastern newt is a salamander that’s commonly found near lakes and ponds in eastern North America. It protects itself from predators by secreting poison from its skin if it’s injured or threatened.
An eastern newt can live for up to 15 years in the wild. Because of their bright colours, they make popular aquarium pets.
More commonly known just as a possum, this nocturnal animal is North America’s only marsupial. The female has a fur-lined pouch. When the young are born, they crawl into this pouch. They then remain there, feeding from teats, for a period of about two months.
When a possum is threatened, it feigns death, remaining completely still and with its tongue hanging out. Interestingly, this isn’t just a pretense – it’s a physiological response. The animal literally becomes comatose and doesn’t start to regain consciousness for anything up to four hours. Possums are also unique in that they show partial and sometimes total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes.