12 Important Animals of North America

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North America is a continent of varied landscapes, stretching from the Arctic wastes of the far north to the narrow land bridge of Central America in the south, and bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. And just like its habitats, the wildlife of North America is extremely diverse, ranging from hummingbirds to beavers to brown bears. In this article, you'll discover 12 animals that represent North America in all its biological magnificence. 

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The American Beaver

american beaver
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The American beaver is one of only two living species of beaver, the other being the Eurasian beaver. It's the world's second-largest rodent (after the Capybara of South America) and can attain weights of up to 50 or 60 pounds. American beavers are stocky animals, with compact trunks and short legs, and also have webbed feet and broad, flat tails covered with scales. And, of course, American beavers are constantly building dams—aggregations of sticks, leaves, mud and twigs that provide these oversized rodents with deep-water habitats in which to hide from predators.

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The Brown Bear

Brown bear
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The brown bear is one of the largest and most powerful terrestrial carnivores of North America. This ursine has non-retractable claws that its uses primarily for digging, and it can run at a considerable clip despite its half-ton size—some individuals have been known to attain speeds of up to 35 mph in pursuit of prey. Befitting their name, Brown Bears possess a coat of black, brown or tan fur with longer outer hair, often of a different color; they're also equipped with sizable muscles in their shoulders that give them the strength necessary to dig.

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The American Alligator

American Alligator
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Not quite as dangerous as its reputation, but still populous enough in the southeastern U.S. to make residents extremely anxious, the American alligator is a true North American institution. Some adult alligators can attain lengths of over 13 feet and weights of half a ton, but most are more modestly sized, even given the propensity of Florida condo owners to vastly exaggerate an alligator's specs when calling 911 and having intruders fished out of their swimming pools. By the way, it's never a good idea to feed an American alligator, which habituates it to human contact and makes fatal attacks more likely.

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The American Moose

american moose
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The largest member of the deer family, the American moose has a large, heavy body and long legs, as well as a long head, a flexible upper lip and nose, large ears, and a prominent dewlap that hangs from its throat. The fur of the American moose is dark brown (almost black) and fades during the winter months. Males grow large antlers (the largest known of any extant mammal) in the spring and shed them in the winter; their supposed habit of befriending flying squirrels, a la The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, has yet to be observed in the wild.

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The Monarch Butterfly

monarch butterfly
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As every schoolchild knows, the monarch butterfly has a black body with white spots, and bright orange wings with black borders and veins (some white spots are dappled in with the black wing areas too). Monarchs butterflies are poisonous to eat due to the toxins in milkweed (which monarch caterpillars ingest before they begin their metamorphosis), and their bright coloration serves as a warning to potential predators. The monarch butterfly is best known for its stunning annual migrations, from southern Canada and the northern U.S. all the way down to Mexico.

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The Nine-Banded Armadillo

nine-banded armadillo
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The world's most widespread armadillo, the nine-banded armadillo ranges across the expanse of North, Central and South America. Measuring 14 to 22 inches from head to tail and weighing five to 15 pounds, the nine-banded armadillo is a solitary, nocturnal insectivore--which explains why it so frequently features as roadkill on North American highways. And here's a little-known fact for you: when startled, the nIne-banded armadillo can execute a five-foot vertical leap, thanks to the tension and flexibility of the armored "scutes" along its back.

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The Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse
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The amusingly named tufted titmouse is a small, gray-plumed songbird, easily recognizable by the crest of gray feathers atop its head, as well as its big, black eyes, black forehead, and rust-colored flanks. tufted titmice are notorious for their fashion sense: if possible, they will incorporate discarded rattlesnake scales into their nests, and have even been known to pluck the fur off live dogs. Unusually, too, tufted titmouse hatchlings sometimes choose to linger in their nest for an entire year, helping their parents to raise the next year's titmouse flock.

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The Arctic Wolf

Arctic wolves
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The Arctic wolf is a North American subspecies of the Gray Wolf, the world's largest extant canid. Adult male Arctic wolves measure between 25 and 31 inches tall at the shoulder and can attain weights of up to 175 pounds; females tend to be smaller and lighter, measuring only three to five feet from head to tail. Arctic wolves usually live in groups of seven to 10 individuals, but will occasionally aggregate in packs of up to 30 members. Despite what you may have seen on TV, Canis lupus arctos is friendlier than most wolves, and only rarely attacks humans.

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The Gila Monster

Gila Monster
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The only venomous lizard (as opposed to snake) indigenous to the U.S., the gila monster doesn't deserve either its name or its reputation. This "monster" only weighs a couple of pounds soaking wet, and it's so sluggish and sleepy that you'd have to be especially crepuscular yourself to get bitten by it. And even if you do get nipped, there's no need to update your will: there hasn't been a confirmed human fatality from a gila monster bite since 1939, which, unfortunately, hasn't prevented many people from reacting disproportionately and deliberately killing any gila monsters they encounter.

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The Caribou

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Essentially a North American species of the reindeer, the caribou consists of four variants, ranging from the small (200 pounds for males) Peary caribou to the much bigger (400 pounds for males) boreal woodland caribou. Male caribou are known for their extravagant antlers, with which they battle other males for the right to mate with females during breeding season. The human inhabitants of North America have been hunting Caribou for well over 10,000 years; populations are rebounding somewhat today, even as this even-toed ungulate is restricted to increasingly narrow slices of territory.

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The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

ruby throated hummingbird
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Ruby-throated hummingbirds are tiny birds that weigh less than four grams. Both sexes have metallic green feathers along their backs and white feathers on their bellies; males also have irridescent, ruby-colored feathers on their throats. Ruby-throated hummingbirds beat their wings at an astonishing speed of over 50 beats per second, enabling these birds to hover and even fly backwards when necessary (all while producing a characteristic humming noise that makes this tiny, gentle nectar-eater sound like a giant mosquito).

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The Black-Footed Ferret

black footed ferret
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All the other North American animals on this list are relatively healthy and thriving, but the black-footed ferret hovers on the brink of extinction. In fact, this mustelid, which is also known as the American polecat, literally died once and was resurrected: the species was declared extinct in the wild in 1987, then was successfully reintroduced into Arizona, Wyoming and South Dakota. Today, there are over 1,000 black-footed ferrets in the American west today, which is good news for conservationists but bad news for this mammal's favorite prey, the prairie dog.