North American River Otter

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As I was hiking the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath this week, I noticed some movement in the water in the Cuyahoga River. Once I got a good look at them and made a positive identification, I was pleasantly surprised to be observing my first wild North American River Otters.

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North American River Otters are native to Ohio, but in the early 1900s they were extirpated from the state due to poor water quality. Throughout the twentieth century, Ohio waterways started to bounce back and in 1986 the Division of Wildlife decided to reintroduce otters to the state.

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These mammals are built for swimming. They have an excellent cardiovascular and respiratory system that allows them to stay under water for up to 4 minutes at a time. They can also close their ears and nostrils to keep water out and have a clear third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane that protects their eyes while under water.

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A North American River Otter’s diet consists of mainly fish, but they will also eat various reptile and amphibian species as well as small mammals and birds. I got to see these animals eating their prey, which in this case was a European Carp.

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These animals are often seen in family groups in the Summer and early Fall. They are generally nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn or dusk), although daytime activity is not uncommon in undisturbed areas. They are known for being playful and I saw one rolling around in the sand, seeming to enjoy himself.

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A member of the Weasel Family, this is a stocky animal weighing 11 to 33 pounds, with short legs, a muscular neck and an elongated body. It has long whiskers that are used to detect prey in dark water. Its body length ranges from 26 to 42 inches.

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It was awesome to observe these animals in the wild and to witness their natural behavior.

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Nine-banded Armadillo

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Driving back from Snake Road in southern Illinois one evening last month, I saw this cool and unusual creature rooting around in an empty field.

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Though their body shape resembles that of an opossum, the Nine-banded Armadillo is more closely related to sloths and anteaters. Around 20 species of armadillo exist, but the Nine-banded is the only one found in the United States.

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The term “armadillo” means “little armored one” in Spanish, and refers to the presence of the bony, armor-like plates covering their body. Contrary to their common name, Nine-banded Armadillos can have 7 to 11 bands of armor.

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Nine-banded Armadillos are solitary, largely nocturnal animals that come out to forage around dusk. They are extensive burrowers, with a single animal sometimes maintaining up to 12 burrows on its range. I most often see them at night, like this one from a couple of years ago.

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They are mainly insectivores that forage for meals by thrusting their snouts into loose soil and leaf litter and digging up grubs, beetles, ants, termites, and worms, which their sensitive noses can detect through 8 inches of soil.

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During the Great Depression, the species was hunted for its meat in East Texas, where it was known as poor man’s pork, or the “Hoover Hog” by those who considered President Herbert Hoover to be responsible for the Depression.

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Nine-banded Armadillos nearly always have litters of four babies – identical quadruplets. Armadillo babies look very much like adults, but are smaller and softer than their armored parents. This is a fascinating animal that I always enjoy encountering.

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Wild Burro

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There have been several times in my visits to the Las Vegas Area when I’ve encountered these hoofed mammals. The Wild Burro was first introduced into the southwestern United States by Spaniards in the 1500s. Originally from Africa, these pack animals were prized for their hardiness in arid country. They are sure-footed, can locate food in barren terrain and can carry heavy burdens for days through hot, dry environments.

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A “Wild Burro” is simply a wild donkey. Used by miners during the Gold Rush of the 1800s, many of these tough animals were later abandoned, but found ways to survive some of the most extreme, unforgiving terrain in the American West. Wild burros have long ears, a short mane and reach a height of up to 5 feet at the shoulders. They vary in color from black to brown to gray.

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An average weight of an adult is 400 pounds for males (jacks) which are slightly larger than the females (jennies). These animals have been known to live past 30 years when well fed and cared for by man. In the wild, their average lifespan is about 10 years.

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A Wild Burro can tolerate a water loss of about 30% of its body weight. Is feeds on a wide variety of plants but prefers grasses. It survives the apparent lack of water by seeking out the natural springs and hidden waterholes.

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The Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (passed in 1971), states that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages Wild Burros with other plants and animals in the environment. The BLM currently manages Wild Burros so that they and other animals and plants can share the area with minimal competition.

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Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bat

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One of the unexpected highlights of my recent visit to southern Illinois was getting to encounter a number of these fine creatures. As their name implies, this species has long, rabbit-like ears that can be over an inch long. They are a medium-sized bat with a wingspan of 10–12 inches.

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Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bats, like all bats in the southeastern United States, are insectivorous, nocturnal, and locate food primarily by echolocation. They consume a wide range of insects – including mosquitoes, beetles and flies – although moths make up 90% of their diet.

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While other species of bats are crepuscular (become active during twilight hours), this species is nocturnal, becoming active when it is completely dark. This mammal occurs in forested regions largely devoid of natural caves. Its natural roosting places are in hollow trees and crevices behind bark. It is most frequently observed in buildings – both occupied and abandoned.

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Rafinesque’s Big-eared Bats are one of the least-known bats in the southeastern United States. They help make our lives more comfortable by eating millions of bugs, especially mosquitoes, every night as well as consuming crop-destroying insects. This was a fun find in the Land of Lincoln.

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Indiana Bat

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This is a creature that I’ve only seen while visiting Cater Caves, Kentucky. The Indiana Bat was listed as endangered in 1967. They are vulnerable to disturbance because they hibernate in large numbers in only a few caves.

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Other threats to their existence include commercialization of caves, loss of Summer habitat, pesticides and other contaminants, and most recently, a disease known as White-nose Syndrome.

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Although in flight they have a wingspan of 9 to 11 inches, Indiana Bats only weigh about one-quarter of an ounce (about the weight of three pennies).

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Indiana bats are social and tend to be found clustered in groups. Their average lifespan is 15 years, which is surprisingly long for such a small mammal.

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Like other bats in the United States, they are insectivores and feed on beetles, flies, moths and other flying invertebrates. To locate their prey, they utilize echolocation, which is similar to sonar used in ships.

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It was neat to see this uncommon and very cool mammal while visiting the Bluegrass State.

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Tri-colored Bat

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When exploring Carter Caves, Kentucky, we came across a few examples of one of the smallest bats in the land; it can easily be mistaken for a large moth in flight.

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The Tri-colored Bat’s forearms are pinkish and its wing membrane is black. Its ears are longer than they are wide. With a weight of about one fifth of an ounce, it is roughly the same heaviness as a quarter.

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They prefer to live in open forest areas that are near a source of water in the Summer. Tri-colored Bats are among the first bats to emerge in the evening and can been seen flying about foraging for insects. Because of their small size, they are limited to small prey less than half an inch in length. One study recorded a Tri-colored Bat catching an insect every two seconds.

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This mammal is classified as a cave-dwelling bat. In the Winter, it can be found in caves, mines, and rock crevices. While they are known for keeping down mosquito populations, Tri-colored Bats also have important agricultural value, since they also eat grain moths and beetles emerging from corn cribs.

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I don’t get to see bats “up close and personal” all that often, so encountering one of them is a great part of the spelunking experience.

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Yellow-cheeked Chipmunk


While visiting Van Damme State Park in California, I saw a few of these cool rodents. Also known as the Redwood Chipmunk, this is a member Squirrel Family. It is endemic to areas near the coast of northern California in the United States where it inhabits coastal coniferous forest.


The Yellow-cheeked Chipmunk is tawny olive in color with five dark stripes on the body and three on the head. As the name implies. As its name implies, a pale patch of fur is found immediately behind the ear.


This animal is secretive in its habits and rarely seen, but it can often be heard emitting its characteristic shrill double-syllable “chuck-chuck” call. These animals rely on Coastal Redwood forests and mixed conifer or Douglas Fir forests for their habitat.


At the end of winter and beginning of spring, a significant portion of their diet consists of fungi. The rest of the year they consume is a very wide range of seeds. The Yellow-cheeked Chipmunk has a limited range with a total area of occupancy of only 7,700 square miles, though its population is steady and it faces no particular threats.


This is a neat creature that few people get to see – and a great part of my California adventure.

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Columbian Black-tailed Deer

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I often see this large mammal while visiting California. It is part of a group known as Mule Deer and is indigenous to western North America; Mule Deer are named for their ears, which are large like those of the Mule. They have excellent hearing and eyesight that warns them of approaching dangers.

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Mule Deer are among the most beloved and iconic wildlife of the American West. They are distributed throughout western North America from the coastal islands of Alaska, down the West Coast to southern Baja Mexico.

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These animals live in a broad range of habitats such as forests, prairies, plain, deserts and brushlands. Mountain populations migrate to higher elevation in warmer months, looking for nutrient-rich new-grown grasses, twigs, and shrubs. I see them most often in open grasslands and forest edge ecosystems.

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Columbian Black-tailed Deer are most active in the morning and evening, spending most of the daylight hours bedded down under cover where they are hidden from predators. Mule deer are primarily browsers, with a majority of their diet comprised of forbs (weeds) and browse (leaves and twigs of woody shrubs).

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Like all deer species, they are ruminants which means their stomach has four chambers to help them better digest the food they eat. Although capable of running, mule deer are often seen stotting (also called pronking), in which they spring into the air, lifting all four feet off the ground simultaneously.


Each Spring, a buck’s antlers start to regrow almost immediately after the old antlers are shed. Shedding typically takes place in mid-February. Here’s a buck sporting new antlers that I saw at Point Reyes National Seashore last month. As the antlers grow, they are covered with velvet, a layer of skin rich with blood vessels and nerves that nourish the bony antlers.

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Coming from an area where White-tailed Deer are common, it’s neat to see their Back-tailed counterpart when visting the West.

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Also known as a Woodchuck, this is a rodent belonging to the group of large ground squirrels. They are the largest members of the squirrel family. At about 20 inches long, Groundhogs weigh around 13 pounds. These mammals are found only in North America, from Canada down to the southern United States.


Groundhogs have sharp claws that they use to dig impressive burrows in the ground. Their burrows can be anywhere from 8 to 66 feet long, with multiple exits and a number of chambers.


Their favored habitat is woodland areas on the edge of open fields. Groundhogs are solitary creatures that can eat about a pound of food per sitting. A Groundhog’s diet can include fruit, plants, tree bark and grasses. One reason why they eat so much is because in the Winter they hibernate and live off their fat.


While hibernating, the Groundhog’s heartbeat slows from 80 beats per minute to 5 beat per minute; their respiration reduces from 16 breaths per minute to as few as 2 breaths per minute; and their body temperature drops from about 99 degrees Fahrenheit to as low as 37 degrees.


In February, males will come out of hibernation and search for females’ burrows. When he finds one, he heads on in. It is believed that males do this to introduce themselves to possible mates.


Groundhog Day is a popular tradition celebrated in the United States and Canada on February 2. It derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that if a groundhog emerging from its burrow on this day sees a shadow due to clear weather, it will retreat to its den and Winter will persist for six more weeks, and if he does not, due to cloudiness, Spring season will arrive early.

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The Groundhog is also referred to as a Chuck, Wood-shock, Groundpig, Whistlepig, Whistler, Thickwood Badger, Canada Marmot, Monax, Moonack, Weenusk and Red Monk.

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California Ground Squirrel

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This is a common and easily observed mammal that I saw a lot of on my last visit to California. The squirrel’s upper parts are mottled, with the fur containing a mixture of gray, light brown and dusky colors.

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Unlike squirrels from my home state of Ohio, California Ground Squirrels live in burrows which they excavate themselves. Some burrows are occupied communally, but each individual squirrel has its own entrance.

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Their diet is is primarily seed-based, including barley, oats, and acorns. They eat eggs, insects, roots, tubers, seeds, grains, nuts and fruit. California Ground Squirrels have cheek pouches which allow them to collect more food than would otherwise be possible in one sitting. Like Ohio squirrels, they collect and store food for future use.

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Much research has been done on the interactions, both behavioral and biochemical, between Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes and California Ground Squirrels. Adult squirrels are largely resistant to the rattlesnakes’ venom and exhibit interesting behaviors such as tail-flagging and pushing grass at the snake when they encounter one.

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These interesting creatures have several calls and are fun to watch. They create habitat for other animals, such as rodents and snakes, which occupy empty burrows.

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