North America: A land of pioneering animals

The continent across the Atlantic Ocean, where wildlife thrives among the varied landscapes: North America is the focus of the sixth episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet.

Huge cities with skyscrapers, crowds and man-made landscapes might be what comes to mind when you think of North America, but the continent’s natural world deserves glory of its own. Whether it’s the Tahtsa Lake West in British Columbia, Canada, where almost 1.5 m (4.9 ft) of snow fell in a single day in 1999, or Death Valley in California, which boasts the record for the hottest ever air temperature at 57˚C, the continent is varied in every sense of the word.

North America is home to a vast array of wildlife, from the huge North American Bison to the glowing fireflies in the sky. If you want to know more about some of the continent’s native wildlife, we have you covered.

Mermaid or manatee?

Found in the waters around North America are creatures originally thought to be mermaids by Christopher Columbus. We now know that he was referring to manatees, fairly docile creatures who seem to enjoy a cuddle, as one of the programme’s film crew found out.

Is this what you would expect a mermaid to look like?

These slow-moving, aquatic mammals can be found in shallow waters where vegetation flourishes. They munch their way through around 60 kg (130 lb) of vegetation a day, depending on their size.

Also known as sea cows, manatees have no natural predators in the wild, but humans have played a part in making them at risk of extinction. Due to them being quite buoyant and slow moving, most deaths are caused by boat collisions. However, in 2017 the US Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded the mammal from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’ due to increasing numbers.

The real roadrunner and coyote

Beep, beep! The sound Looney Tunes’ Road Runner makes as he darts away from the grasp of Wile E. Coyote is something many of us will be familiar with. In reality, the roadrunner wouldn’t stand a chance of outrunning a coyote.

Roadrunners would struggle to outrun coyotes in the real world

That’s right - it’s been a myth all this time. The roadrunner can reach speeds of over 20 mph (32 kmh) when chasing prey, but the coyote can run twice as fast at 40 mph (64 kmh). Both animals are found in the same desert areas of southwestern United States and Mexico (although the coyote is also found in other areas throughout the US and Canada).

Coyotes are opportunistic hunters and will eat almost everything - from the flesh of dead mammals to lizards, and even fruits - including, of course, roadrunners. Roadrunners, on the other hand, feed on insects, snakes and lizards. They hardly ever need to drink and get their water from food. Roadrunners can fly but they are fairly clumsy in the air and tire rapidly, opting to run along flat surfaces like roads, which might explain their name.

North America’s hibernating black bears

Sometimes there’s nothing better than having a good old lie in. We all have our lazy days, but black bears take it to another level.

Black bears in North America can go up to seven months in their dens without eating

The big bears spend the entire winter season dormant in their dens, feeding on body fat they have built up throughout the summer. Now, that’s quite a lie in! As a result, they can be 30% lighter when they emerge from their dens in spring.

Despite their name, black bears aren’t wholly black. They can also be brown, cinnamon, gray and on very rare occasions, white. They mostly feed on vegetation like berries and grasses, but also fish and mammal carcasses. Bears are attracted to human rubbish and a variety of foods, including honey from beehives. This can lead to them frequently going back to the same place and, as a consequence, be killed.

Flashing fireflies

In our Seven Worlds, One Planet article about Europe, it’s the colourful Northern Lights that fill the night sky. Fireflies want to get in on the action too.

Fireflies usually wait until it’s fairly dark before they start glowing

Fireflies light up due to a chemical reaction in their abdomens. As air rushes into a firefly’s abdomen, it reacts with an organic compound called ‘luciferin’ and gives off a glow. Fireflies can regulate the airflow into their abdomen to create a flash code. There are over 150 different species of firefly in North America, and each has its own characteristic flash code.

Male fireflies use their glow to attract females and, in some areas at certain times, fireflies can flash in sync. This can result in thousands of little flashes in one place, creating a dazzling light display.

Life of a prairie

You may think a prairie dog is, as its name suggests… a dog, but you would be wrong. Prairie dogs are actually rodents of the squirrel family.

Prairie dogs have an advanced language and sophisticated living arrangements

To the human ear, the squeaky calls of a prairie dog sounds simple and repetitive, but these intelligent rodents may have the second-most advanced language behind humans. Scientists think they can communicate with incredible detail, not only alerting others of danger but also describing nearby predators. For example, a single bark may be attuned to say “tall, skinny coyote in distance, moving rapidly towards colony".

Prairie dogs live in tight-knit family groups called coteries, and have well-organised homes. These coteries live in underground burrows with designated areas for nurseries, sleeping and toilets. The burrows are designed so air flows through, providing ventilation, and every exit has a listening post. When prairie dogs come and go around the burrow, they will usually touch noses and lock their teeth with one another to determine if they are members of the same family.

Europe: The continent transformed by humanity
Australia: The land down under
South America: Rainforests, rivers and waterfalls