The North American population's interest in its animals extends across most sectors of society. Case in point, hardly a day passes without a mention of a favorite sport's team and its animal mascot. Add in discussions of family pets and culinary discussions and it seems as if animals slip into discussions morning, noon and night.
Scientists organize their thinking and research about mammals by further dividing them into orders, or groups, that share additional physical characteristics. Depending on the source used, anywhere from twenty six to twenty nine orders of mammals live on earth constituting approximately 5,500 species. Some mammal orders are better known that others. Cross cultural perspectives often produce different lists of favored and unfavored mammals.
With the exception of one or two families, most people, for example, easily recognized the carnivores, especially the larger ocean and land families such as bears, cats, seals and sealions.
Rodentia or rodents (approximately 2,200 species) and Chiorptera or bats (approximately 1,100 species) rank as the two largest mammal orders, constituting around sixty percent of all mammal species. Proboscidea or elephants (3 species) and Sirenia or manatees (5 species) are the two smallest mammal orders.
We know them as our favorite farm animals, cows, horses, pigs, sheep and goats. Formally they are called ungulates, a general term given to both the domestic and wild hoofed animals.
With the exceptions of Australia and New Zealand, wild ungulate populations inhabit most of the world's grasslands and some forest areas. Outdoor travel and recreation that includes visiting local ungulate populations is the stuff of American song. Deer, antelope and more ungulates graze the fields from coast to coast. Here are some representative species, starting with the iconic buffalo, whose story runs deep in the country's culture and history.
At one time, tens of millions of wild bison roamed American grasslands. Western expansion and the wholesale bison hunts that came with it, ultimately reduced the population counted in hundreds. Many of the remaining bison were bred with cattle, leaving a small pure bred population to survive in Yellowstone National Park and a few other areas. The Yellowstone bison population, first protected at the turn of the nineteenth century, now fluctuates from 2300 to 4500 animals, and the park remains a popular buffalo tourist destination.
Native Americans called them Wapiti, meaning elk (Cercus elaphus). Historically, six elk subspecies roamed the grasslands of North America. Hunting and human settlement drove two subspecies, the Eastern elk (Cercus elaphus Canadensis) and the Merriam elk (Cevus elaphus marriami) to extinction.
Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti), one of the remaining subspecies, live in the coast forests of the Pacific Northwest and California.
The species is known not only for its size, second only to moose in the deer family (Cervidae), but also for its white rump patch. Males, like the one in the top picture, can weigh up to one thousand pounds. Their annual antler growth makes them a formidable foe against all natural predators in their territory, save humans.
In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation creating the Olympic National Park, on the coastal area of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, intending it to be an elk sanctuary. Seventy years later, the park is home to a thriving elk herd.
Without a doubt, the White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) receives the title of the most wide spread of all North American ungulates. They can be found inhabiting grasslands and woodlands from Canada, south through Mexico, and even into northern South America.
Their wide range translates into close to forty different documented subspecies, with most sharing some basuc physical traits. Generally white-tailed deer are medium sized animals, about three and one-half feet tall, weighing about 250 pounds. Males grow antlers from March-August and shed them on an annual basis.
Other than breeding season, White-tailed deer often live in gender differentiated social groups.
The family Mustelidae, also known as Mustelids, constitute the largest family of carnivores in terms of number of species. With few exceptions, they also rank among the smallest family of carnivores in terms of physical size. Like the pictured badger, mustelids tend to be short, thin, fur bearing mammals.
Eleven mustelid species inhabit North America. The sea otter and black-footed ferret are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Finding any mustelid species in the wild can be easy. All local, state and national park information web sites provide information on local wildlife viewing opportunities. The large number of mustelid species means at least one species can be spotted in most wild areas from coast to coast.
The Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata), ranks as both the largest and widest ranging of the three North American weasels, making a spotting of one in the wild more probable than not.
Most open space with rocks or abandoned burrows that offer adequate food and water sources serve as suitable habitat.
Mature males grow up to two feet long, including the black tipped tail.
While often nocturnal, the picture shows they make the occasional day appearance to investigate visitors in their territory.
Formally the prase endangered species usually refers to animal and plant species that have a high risk of going extinct in the wild. Most experts cite habitat loss as the major factor that creates stress on animal populations. An increase in the global population, along with the habitat destruction, including a changing climate, that accompanies modern economic development, continues to stress world animal and plant life.
A variety of public and private organizations keep track on the status of potentially endangered and endangered species. In the United States, for example, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) reports on the endangered and threatened status of animal and plant life arranged into four categories. Within those four categories the 2010 number of species considered endangered or threatened is as follows:
On a global scale, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) researches and collects statistics on bidiversity and population statistics for the natural world.
Their Red List of threatened species provides facts on the status of individual species, genera and families, organized in an easy to use data base.
According to the 2009 update,
17,291 species out of the 47,677 assessed species are threatened with extinction
When the species are grouped into defined categories, IUCN scientists estimate that all of the endangered species break down into
21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, and 28 percent of reptiles, 37 percent of freshwater fishes, 70 percent of plants, 35 percent of invertebrates
Dealing with endangered species on a global level presents coordination difficulties, often because of cultural, economic and insitutional differences among states.
© 2009-2016 Patricia A. Michaels