The United States is home to a staggering array of wildlife species, but only a handful tend to make the headlines — those that are the most common, or the most iconic or perhaps the most problematic.
But there are some deserving creatures that don't get the same level of attention. Here are a handful that you probably didn't know are native to the States — and you may not have realized they existed at all!
The ocelot is a small wild cat species, also called the dwarf leopard. It looks like a tiny jaguar or clouded leopard. Ocelots can grow as long as 3-4.75 feet from tip of nose to tip of tail, and can weigh anywhere from 20-40 pounds. The solitary cats are territorial, and they rely on thick vegetation for shelter and hunting.
The species is native to large swaths of South America, Central America, and up into North America as far as southern Texas. On rare occasions it has been spotted in southern Arizona. They once ranged even farther into the States, and were found as far east as Arkansas and Louisiana. But between habitat loss and being hunted for their fur, ocelot numbers plummeted and they were classified as vulnerable on the endangered species list until 1996.
Though they are now back to being an IUCN "least concern" species, they have not returned to portions of their former range in the States, and there is only an isolated population of perhaps 50 cats still living in Texas.
2. Collared Peccary
Photo: Christian Musat/Shutterstock
This adorable mammal is not a feral pig, even though it is commonly mistaken for one. The collared peccary is in the family Tayassuidae (not Suidae from which domestic pigs come), and they are only somewhat related to pigs at all.
Still, they look similar enough that no one would blame you for a misidentification. In fact, they're also commonly called javelina, musk hogs and Mexican hogs — names that only confuse their classification. They are more slender and smaller than pigs, and have several anatomical differences from the number of toes on their hind feet (three instead of four) to the direction their tusks point (down instead of curled). Unlike pigs, peccaries are native to the Americas, and the collared peccary is found in South America, Central America and in North America as far up as the southwestern United States including Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
Collared peccaries are omnivores and dine on everything from cactus to fruits, from roots and tubers to insects and even small vertebrates. They travel in small herds of around six to 10 individuals, but some herds can be as large as 50 members or more.
The ringtail (or ring-tailed cat, miner's cat or marv cat) looks like something you might find in the wilds of Australia, but you need look no further than the South, Southwest or West Coast of the U.S. to find them. Even though it's the state mammal of Arizona, this species is another surprising addition to this list.
The reason you may not often see them is because they're nocturnal, solitary, and shy away from humans. They're also tiny, weighing only 1-2 pounds and measuring about 2 feet long, with their tail making up about half that length.
Despite being shy, the species is said to be easily tamed and this is the source of one of its names, the miner's cat. Though it is in the raccoon family and not a cat at all, miners and settlers used to keep them in their cabins to hunt mice, rats and other vermin. Though in many occasions, it was more a matter of ringtails moving in than the cabin owners bringing them in. Still, it was a mutually beneficial relationship.
4. Gulf Coast Jaguarundi
Photo: Keven Law/Shutterstock
The ocelot isn't the only surprising wild cat species found in the United States. Have you ever heard of the Gulf Coast jaguarundi? Not many people know that this species exists, let alone that it can be found in the U.S.
The Gulf Coast jaguarundi is one of four subspecies of jaguarundi, all of which are endangered. This is perhaps one of the more unusual-looking of the cat species, and it has been compared to an otter in its build because of its short legs, long body, and long flat tail, as well as its flat-ish head and small rounded ears. The coat color ranges from a rusty brown color to a dark grey, and varies depending on its preferred habitat — those individuals that live in more densely forested areas tend to be darker in color than those living in more open areas. This species is found in southern Texas down through to eastern Mexico.
Though it is endangered due primarily to habitat loss, the Gulf Coast jaguarundi is rarely studied and is not well understood. It is known, however, to be a close relative of the cougar. It is one of the many species whose continued existence is threatened by the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.
5. Flying Squirrel
Photo: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock
There are 44 species of flying squirrel, most of which are found in Southeast Asia. But two of those species, the northern flying squirrel and southern flying squirrel are found right here in the U.S. They are the only two native flying squirrel species and they are equally adorable.
They are seen less often than tree squirrels because they are nocturnal. That's probably why so many people are surprised to learn that they are native to the States. The southern flying squirrel lives in the eastern U.S. from Maine to Florida and west from Minnesota south to Texas. Meanwhile, the northern flying squirrel lives mostly in the Northeast, down the West Coast, and in Idaho and Montana.
Flying squirrels don't actually fly — bats are the only mammal capable of flight — but they spread the extra skin along the sides of their bodies as they leap from tree to tree to extend the length of their leap. The strategy works wonderfully, and they can glide a distance of up to 150 feet! Both species are omnivores, eating seeds, nuts, fruit and insects. But the southern flying squirrel's diet includes eggs, carrion and even birds, making them one of the most carnivorous squirrel species.
Photo: Tony Campbell/Shutterstock
Photo: Cynthia Kidwell/Shutterstock
This unusual species is a member of the raccoon family along with the ringtail. Though you may think it is found only in Central or South America, it is also a resident of southwestern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and parts of Texas.
About the size of a large house cat, the coati has a long ringed tail that it holds straight up in the air somewhat like a flag, which helps keep the troop members together even in tall vegetation. And though it can bend the tip of its tail, it is not prehensile.
The coati's long nose ends with a bit of an up-turn, which is why it has the nickname of the hog-nosed raccoon. These animals are strong climbers, clever and inquisitive, cautious and social, and overall a fascinating species.
Photo: Chris Hill/Shutterstock
7. Luna Moth
This huge lime-green moth grows up to 4.5 inches across, but its home isn't the tropical rain forests of the Amazon, as one might expect. It is found east of the Great Plains from northern Mexico up to Nova Scotia. It is also one of the largest moths on the continent.
They only live for about seven days once reaching adulthood because they have no mouths and can't eat; in fact, they exist as adults only to reproduce. They have just one generation a year in the North, but as many as three in southern states.
One fascinating fact about the luna moth is that their long, slightly curled tails help them throw off bat echolocation, reducing their risk of being snagged by a bat for dinner. After experimenting with a couple hundred unlucky moths, researchers found that moths without tails were nearly nine times more likely to get snagged by a bat than one with the frills such as the luna moth displays. So the beautiful wings are all about survival, and they are designed for sound rather than for looks.
Photo: Marty Pitcairn/Shutterstock
Photo: Patryk Kosmider/Shutterstock
The jaguar was not always limited to the jungles of Central and South America. This threatened cat species was once a common resident of the States from southern California all the way to Louisiana, Kentucky and North Carolina. But the third-largest cat species was eliminated from the U.S. in the early 1900s. Now it is limited to only extremely rare sightings of an individual living in the Santa Rita Mountains outside Tucson, Arizona.
However, jaguars could possibly return to the U.S. thanks to many years of dedicated conservation work. Last year, 1,194 square miles of critical habitat in southern Arizona and New Mexico were set aside with the hope that jaguars will make a comeback. However, all the sightings since 1982 have been males. The last female in the U.S. was shot by a hunter in 1963, so conservationists are hoping that females will explore the areas along with those males caught on camera traps so that jaguars can naturally repopulate some of their former stomping grounds.
Photo: ANDRE DIB/Shutterstock
9. Thick-Billed Parrot
Photo: Patrick Rolands/Shutterstock
Did you know the U.S. was home to two parrot species? The Carolina parakeet was a beautiful bird with a yellow head, orange face and bright green body that was found in the eastern, Midwest and Plains states until the early 1900s. Meanwhile, the thick-billed parrot is this gorgeous green bird with red accents, and it was once found throughout the Southwest.
Shooting, logging and development decimated their numbers and today, only a tiny (and declining) population of about 2,000 individuals (with only around 100 active nests) can be found in northwest Mexico.
Though there is a captive breeding program, hope for the species in the wild is carried with a bit of caution. There was a reintroduction program attempted in the 1980s, but because the habitat has been so changed by humans, including a rise in raptor species, the reintroduction program was unsuccessful due to high predation and other factors and ended in 1993. With the U.S. only ever being home to two native parrot species, it's disheartening to see this last species so close to the brink of extinction.
Photo: Joshua Haviv/Shutterstock
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