SCOTT SHALAWAY Getting to know America's mammals
Harvard entomologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Dr. Edward O. Wilson coined the term "biophilia" to describe what he believes is our innate affinity for the natural world. Who doesn't enjoy a glimpse of a wild animal, whether it's a fox crossing a country road, a chickadee at a backyard feeder, or a spider spinning its web?
Inherent in our love affair with animals is a desire to know their names -- to name them is to know them. In fact, learning a creature's name is the first step to understanding its natural history.
Birds get most of our attention because they're so conspicuous -- they sing, they fly, many are brightly colored, most are active by day, and many fearlessly frequent our backyards. To satisfy our demand for information about birds, a dizzying array of field guides and reference books is available at any bookstore.
Interest in most other animal groups pales in comparison to birds. Insects are too creepy-crawly, amphibians are slimy, reptiles are scary, and mammals are, well, mostly nocturnal. Out or sight, out of mind. A new field guide, however, could change our view of mammals.
Mammals of North America (2004, Princeton University Press) by Roland W. Kays and Don E. Wilson is a full color field guide to 442 species of mammals that occur north of Mexico. That number is probably stunning.
I suspect most people can't name even 20 North American mammals. Try it -- opossum, rabbit, mouse, rat, chipmunk, squirrel, ground hog, skunk, weasel, raccoon, bobcat, bear, deer, elk and moose. That's 15, but it's not a very precise list. There are multiple kinds of rabbits, mice, rats, squirrels, skunks, weasels, bears and deer.
Let's take a look at the diversity of North American mammals, courtesy of Kays and Wilson's new standard for mammal identification. Though they cover 442 species, I'm going to ignore most of the exotic species and say that there are 431 mammals in North America. They include:
UOpossum, the only one of 69 New World marsupials that occurs north of the border.
UThe nine-banded armadillo, one of 20 New World armadillos that occurs north of Mexico.
UThirty-three species of shrews, including the pygmy shrew, the smallest North America mammal which weighs 2 to 7 grams (that's less than a quarter-ounce).
USeven moles, two pikas (kin to rabbits).
UEighteen species of rabbits and hares.
USix large rodents which include porcupines, beavers and muskrats.
USix marmots, including the common ground hog.
UTwelve tree squirrels, 25 ground squirrels, four prairie dogs, 29 species of chipmunks, 28 of which occur west of the Mississippi River.
UEighteen gophers, 20 kinds of pocket mice; 19 species of kangaroo mice and rats.
UTen woodrats; two introduced rats (the ones we love to hate); 37 species of other rats and mice, including 17 species of deer mice.
UTwenty-six voles; six lemmings; 47 bats, the most diverse group of mammals on the continent.
USeven cats, eight canids, three bears, three raccoonlike critters.
UNineteen members of the weasel family including otters, wolverines, fishers, martins, skunks and North America's smallest carnivore, the least weasel, which weighs less than two ounces and measures less than eight inches from tip of nose to tip or tail.
UFourteen seals including the walrus, one manatee, one pronghorn.
UOne colla red peccary, a piglike native of the Southwest.
UThree goats and sheep; one bison, the continent's largest land mammal at almost 2,000 pounds.
UOne caribou, one musk ox, one elk, one moose, two deer and 37 species of whales and dolphins.
That's quite a list. The majority of North American mammals are unfamiliar to many of us for two reasons: most are nocturnal and many occur only on the western half of the continent.
In future columns I'll introduce some of the more interesting and obscure North American mammals. In the meantime, I recommend Kays and Wilson's Mammals of North America. It is the best guide to mammals in print and has become one of the handful of books I keep at arm's reach.