Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Guide to North American Mammals

I have a confession to make.

No, I'm not going to confess that I'm not as green as I'm letting on (I switched to 100% renewable electricity last month). Nor am I going to confess that I'm a proud shareholder of BP (I'm not -- btw, happy oil spill anniversary!)

No, I'm going to confess something much more mundane.

I confess that I love the Internet.

It's true. I love it that people from around the world are tuning in to what we're saying here. We're getting hits from India (Namaste), Qatar (Marhaba), Russia (Dobro požalovat'), Azerbaijan (Xoş gəlmişsiniz!), Australia (Welcome mates), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Dobrodošli), Canada (Howdy),
Germany (Willkomen), Fiji (Bula) and other great places. Thanks for reading. It's nice to know you're interested in a greener, more sustainable planet whereever you are.

I also love the Internet because of cool sites like the Smithsonian's North American Mammals.
Before we start, how many mammal species would you guess exist in North America? 100? 200? 500? 800? 1000?

Fire up the site in another window, go to Enhanced Map Search (Beta) and we'll look at some cool things together. The first thing you'll notice, if you're on the default "mammal" view, is that there are 426 mammal species spread among just ten orders (remember Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). Personally, I would have guessed there are 100-200 mammals in North America, so I would have been short by more than a factor of 2!

Here are the ten orders of mammals in North America: 1. even-toed ungulates; 2. carnivores; 3. whales, dolphins, porpoises; 4. bats; 5. opossums; 6. shrews, moles, hedgehogs; 7. rabbits, hares, pikas; 8. rodents; 9. manatees, dugongs; 10. armadillos, sloths, anteaters.

Really, if we were serious, we could memorize a short list of ten items like that.

Click on any order and you'll see how its species are distributed. For example, when you click on the box for Manatees and dugongs, you see that they are found only around the coast of Florida. Similarly, you can click on the arrow next to Bats and then see all the bat families. Click on any family and check off a species to find its geographical distribution. For example, the Family "Vesper Bats" seem to be quite widely distributed. When you check off the Pallid bat, you find it is concentrated in the western US, but the big brown bat has colonized the entire continental US, Mexico and southern Canada. You can amuse yourself with all ten different orders of North American mammals and get to know them better.

Another thing to try is to switch from the "Mammals" view to the "Ecoregions" view. Now you'll see the map transform into a colorful collage that indicates different ecological regions like grasslands, steppes, forests and so on. I live in Boston and suppose I want to go to Cape Code for the weekend -- what mammals might I see down there? Well, when I click on the Cape on the map, a box pops up that tells me it's the "Atlantic coastal pine barrens" ecoregion and I've got a chance to see 37 different mammals in the area including white-tailed deer, skunk, voles and much more. Click on "Explore" to see the geographical range for each.

Click on your favorite area and see what you can find.

Maybe you want to sink your teeth in a little deeper and find out which mammals are in trouble? Go back to the main page and click on Conservation status. You should list of categories on the right with "Extinct", "Extinct in the wild", "Critically endangered" and so on.

Here's where we can create our own field guide.

Suppose we want to find out more about the "Critically endangered" mammals". When I click on that menu item I get "13 records returned". Scroll down to the bottom of the page and "Select all" and then click on "Create field guide".

Voila! The site has generated a nice 13-page pdf file of all the critically endangered mammals in North America, including a color picture, a note about its conservation status, a paragraph about its habits, a map of where its found (some of my maps didn't reproduce very well) and space for me to make my own notes.

Go ahead, make your own field guide. This is a tool to use again and again. And there's much more to explore at this great site.

Yes, it's true, I love the Internet!

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