NORTH AMERICA IS HOME to some incredible wildlife. City dwellers such as myself typically only see rodents like rats and squirrels, or domesticated animals, but our continent is full of strange and incredible creatures that know enough to avoid our cities.
We’ve done a pretty decent job killing a lot of the animals that used to populate this continent — it’s believed not only that the arrival of Europeans coincided with the wiping out of many American species, but that the arrival of humans, period, tens of thousands of years ago led to the extinction of a lot of our big animals, like the giant sloth and wooly mammoth.
But plenty of spectacular species are still around, despite our best efforts, and in the past half century a renewed focus on issues like conservation has helped bring many of these animals back from the brink. Here are some of the North American continent’s most incredible wildlife.
Though the smallest of America’s bears, the black bear is the most widely distributed, and thus is the least vulnerable. They’re mostly found in Canada and Alaska, but also inhabit wooded areas pretty much anywhere in the US and down into Mexico.
Though typically identified with the United States—namely the states on the Gulf of Mexico—brown pelicans can be found all the way down to South America and the Galapagos Islands. They feed primarily on fish and catch them by diving from above.
Though often considered the poster animals for climate change, polar bears are actually classified as “Vulnerable,” which is the lowest level of concern in terms of conservation status. A decrease in hunting has even led to recovery in some populations.
America’s national bird is particularly photogenic. They were driven to the point of near-extinction in the continental United States at the end of the 20th century, but have since made a comeback. There are a ton of them in Alaska, and you can occasionally spot them pretty much everywhere else in the US except Hawaii.
Monarch butterflies are among the most famous migrators in the world, going from Canada to Mexico in the late summer, even though the time it takes to travel that distance is actually longer than their average lifespan.
Though the gray wolf was basically exterminated in the United States at one point, efforts to reintroduce them to the environment are now proving successful—and they’re largely coming back on their own. There’s now a sizable population in Yellowstone National Park.
The bottlenose dolphin is hardly common only to the Americas, found virtually everywhere in the world’s non-Arctic Oceans. They’re known for being the second most intelligent creatures in the world (behind mice, according to Douglas Adams), and it’s been shown that they can transmit cultural knowledge between generations.
Manatees are another particularly intelligent sea mammal, found largely in the Caribbean, though also in the Amazon and in West Africa. They are vulnerable to extinction, thanks mostly to humans. They’re slow moving and are often hit by boats, and they’re also impacted by habitat destruction.
The arctic fox can be found in basically any tundra region. In North America, it appears pretty much exclusively in Canada and Alaska. Its fur changes from season to season: white in the winter, brown in the summer.
Alligator snapping turtles are mostly found in the south central United States, namely in Texas and the plains states. Their bite can go straight through a broom handle, and has been known to take human fingers clean off.
Probably the most iconic American animal, the bison—inaccurately referred to as a “buffalo”—had numbers around 60 million before the Europeans. In 1890, it’s believed they were down to about 750 total. They have since somewhat recovered to about 360,000.
California condors are another great conservation story. They became extinct in the wild in the ’80s, but have since been reintroduced using the population living in captivity. Their numbers are still extremely small—there’s thought to be fewer than 500 total, with around 200 of those living in captivity, but it’s a comeback nonetheless.
The gray fox is found throughout the continental US and Central America, and can live on anything from mammals to insects. They are one of the only surviving members of the most primitive canine genus.
The American alligator is the world’s largest alligator species, and is found mostly in the Southern states, particularly in swamplands. Their numbers were greatly reduced as a result of over-hunting, but conservation efforts have led to their recovery and removal from the endangered species list.
Though named California sea lions—and probably best known for their colonies off of Pier 39 in San Francisco and in the Channel Islands—they can actually be found all along the west coast of North America, down past the Gulf of California in Mexico. They’re smart animals and have been trained for tasks by the US Navy, presumably with laser beams attached to their heads.
Tufted puffins make their home in the North Pacific and are commonly sighted in coastal Alaska and British Columbia, occasionally wandering further south as far as California. They feed on fish and squid.
Rattlesnakes cover 32 different species of snake, all with the distinctive rattler on their tail. The Mojave rattlesnake (pictured) is particularly dangerous because its venom is not solely a hemotoxin, but also contains neurotoxins.
Found throughout the world’s oceans, the loggerhead is probably most common in America on the Atlantic side. They are an endangered species, harmed most often as a result of destructive fishing practices.
This subspecies of lynx is about twice the size of your house cat, with thick silverish fur and tufted ears. Its range covers much of Canada and Alaska, and it has notably undergone a reintroduction program in Colorado.
Armadillos—“little armored one” in Spanish—originated in South America, but have long since migrated up to North America and the southern United States. They could be considered the “state roadkill animal” of Texas.
The Kodiak bear was initially just a typical grizzly bear, until the forces of speciation on the Kodiak archipelago in Alaska caused them to grow larger. They’re now technically considered a separate species of grizzly and are the biggest bears in the world behind polar bears.
“Puma” is actually a word used to refer to several types of mountain lions. Cougars, which are the American native, have the widest range of any large mammal in the Western Hemisphere, and can be found from Canada all the way down to South America.
Gila monsters are one of only two poisonous lizards in North America, and exist mostly in the Sonoran Desert. They’re slow moving and tend to not attack or come near humans, and their venom, while very poisonous, is delivered in small enough doses to rarely kill.
Bobcats are found throughout most of the United States, thanks to the fact that they are incredibly adaptable and can even live in suburban or urban areas, though of course they prefer more remote habitats.