North American Animals

North American Animals

This section is about the animals living north of the Panama Canal, on the North American continent and its surrounding islands and seas. The geopolitical borders of North America do not always coincide with the geographical ones, but most sources attest to this continent being limited to the southwest by the Darién watershed along the Colombia-Panama border, or by the man-made Panama Canal. Central America and most of the Caribbean is usually considered a part of North America, but share a lot of its wildlife with similarly warm and humid parts of the South American continent.

Until a few million years ago, North America was separated from South America by water which made it possible for South American animals to evolve in relative isolation. This came to an end when the Isthmus of Panama was formed by volcanic activity, connecting the two continents with each others and prompting a gradual migration of land and freshwater animals between the two landmasses. This migration is known as the Great American Interchange and peaked dramatically roughly three million years ago. Since the animals of North America had not evolved in the same type of isolation as the South American fauna (North America was recurrently connected to Eurasia via the Bering land bridge), they were tougher and caused a mass extinction of endemic South America species. Some South American species did however not only survive the competition in South America but successfully colonized the North American continent as well. When we look at the North American fauna today we can see clear evidence of South American animals migrating to this part of the world millions of years ago.

The distribution of North American animals depends chiefly on climate and vegetation, but human activities have also had a great impact on where you can find certain North American animals today. 

Just like the northern parts of Europe and Asia, the northernmost parts of North America are characterized by Arctic tundra and northern coniferous forest. Canada and Alaska are home to arctic animals like the polar bear, ringed seal, arctic fox, snow bunting, northern fulmar, and black-legged kittiwake. Walruses and grey seals inhabit the Arctic and North Atlantic while sea lions and northern elephant seals live off the Pacific coast. Another example of an animal capable of handling the harsh winters of northern North America is the nomadic caribou that assemble in immense herds on the northern tundra. In the northern coniferous forest you can find species like grey wolf, moose, and beaver.   

If you travel further south along the Atlantic coast your will reach the northern wetlands and the eastern deciduous broadleaf woodlands. The eastern woodlands have been heavily developed by humans and many species have been depleted, but you can still find animals like deer, squirrel and skunk. The northern wetlands are less affected and still reach across the continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic, serving as important breeding grounds for migratory waterfowl.

The vast prairie grasslands take up a sizeable portion of North America, even though large areas have been turned into agricultural landscapes. The grasslands are the traditional home of the bison, which once formed immense roaming herds in this type of environment. Other examples of typical North American prairie species are pocket gopher, prairie dog, jackrabbit, and coyote.  

Along the western prairie lays a chain of mountains running all the way from Alaska to Mexico. In this rocky setting you will find North American animals adapted to mountain life, such as Rocky Mountain goats, mountain lions, grizzly and black bears, whitetailed and mule deer, lynxes, and porcupines.

Deserts are found in both the United States and Mexico and are home to their own distinctive selection of drought resistant North American animals, including roughly 40 mammal species and over 100 different birds. Many species, including kangaroo rat and ground squirrel, spend the hottest hours of the day underground in burrows to get away from the heat and the scorching sun. The North American deserts are also home to iconic reptiles like rattlesnake and gila monster.   

Parts of Southern United States and Mexico offer subtropical or tropical conditions with rich biodiversity and a booming animal life year round. The swamp known as Florida Everglades is for instance inhabited by a unique variety of heat loving reptiles, including crocodiles, alligators and the Everglades rat snake. Unfortunately, the North American tropics are currently experiencing many problems with invasive species since tropical species from all over the world thrive this type of habitat.

With 502 described species, Mexico is one of the richest countries in the world regarding number of different mammals. North American mammals present in this country include 
the anteating Northern Tamandua, the Margay cat, Guadalupe fur seal, and Yucatan Howler Monkey.

Central America is the tapering isthmus of southern North America that runs from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico southeastward to the Isthmus of Panama. Most of Central America is a part of the Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot, the third largest among the world’s hotspots. Endemic Central American species include howler monkeys and quetzals, and the region is also a corridor for many Neotropical migrant bird species. 


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