While a few types of wildlife like bears, moose, and wolves capture the imagination of throngs of tourists, there are many rare, charming, and oddly adapted species in national parks that get far less attention. Here are 11 of the quirkiest, as picked by NPCA staff.
It looks like a cross between a hog and an aardvark, but the pesky, passionate javelina is actually neither. These southwestern mammals are more technically known as collared peccaries, though they are also sometimes called musk hogs and skunk pigs, due to the strong scent glands they use to mark their territories. The javelina defends itself with its long tusks, which sharpen every time the animal closes its mouth; when threatened, it will rub its tusks together to make a chattering noise. Herds of javelina can sometimes be a nuisance in suburban areas, feeding on garbage and garden plants, but for the most part, they ignore humans. Perhaps that’s for the best.
Where to find them: Big Bend National Park, Texas; Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Saguaro National Park, Arizona.
This creature’s unusual appearance has inspired such colorful nicknames as “mud devil,” “water dog,” “snot otter,” and “old lasagna sides.” The curious amphibian is North America’s oldest and largest salamander, growing up to two feet long. It is also an example of “divergent evolution”—though the hellbender has Asian ancestors in China and Japan dating back 160 million years, there are no other species like them anywhere else on the planet. An endangered animal, hellbenders rely on clear, clean water to survive, and their populations have been in steep decline for several decades.
Where to find them: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee; Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri; Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
3. Burrowing owl
One of the smallest owls on the continent, this feathery predator lives in burrows that other animals such as prairie dogs and skunks have already excavated (though it will sometimes dig its own). Unlike other owls, these birds are diurnal, meaning that they are active during the daytime rather than at night. Its unusually long legs help the animal raise itself up for a better view from where it perches on the ground. The burrowing owl lacks the ear tufts that are common in many woodland owl species—but its fluffy white “eyebrows” more than make up for it in charm.
Where to find them: Big Bend National Park, Texas; Everglades National Park, Florida; Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks, South Dakota; among other Northwest, Southwest, and Florida parks.
4. Banana slug
This bright yellow mollusk grows six to ten inches long and lives in damp forests along the Pacific coast. It is stenotopic, meaning it can only tolerate a limited range of habitats and conditions. The slug gets much of its sensory information through two pairs of tentacles on its face—one that detects smells and objects, and another that serves as eyestalks, allowing the creature to stretch and pivot its vision. Perhaps most unusual is how humans celebrate them: It is the official mascot of the University of California at Santa Cruz and the star of annual festivals and photography contests.
Where to find them: Muir Woods National Monument, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Redwood National Park, California; Olympic National Park, Washington; among others.
5. Yellow-bellied marmot
This adorable rodent frequents the boulder fields of many western national parks and is sometimes referred to as a “whistle pig” because of the high-pitched noises it makes to warn others in its clan of possible predators. The marmot lives in burrows that vary from three to 23 feet deep, and because it hibernates for a solid eight months a year, it can spend roughly 80 percent of its life underground.
Where to find them: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado; Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming; among other western parks.
6. Great Basin spadefoot toad
This unusual amphibian goes where most toads fear to tread, living in a variety of habitats, including arid desert areas. It survives the dry heat by taking up another odd habit: burrowing. The toad’s namesake “spades”—the hard protrusions on the animal’s hind feet—help it dig a path into the sand where it can spend weeks at a time underground between rains. Even tadpoles can bury themselves for protection. Ever the opportunists, spadefoot toads are sometimes referred to as “explosive breeders,” taking advantage of rare spring storms to lay sudden multitudes of eggs.
Where to find them: Great Basin National Park, Nevada; Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion National Parks, Utah.
7. Vernal pool fairy shrimp
This translucent, inch-long crustacean lives its short life in a temporary pool formed in a naturally occurring desert pothole during the rainy season. The shrimp hatches, matures, mates, and lays its eggs before the pool dries up, then the hardy eggs survive on bare ground until the following year’s rains form new pools and the next generation hatches. The shrimp swims upside-down, using its 22 legs to propel itself, and it eats by sucking water through filters in these many legs, feeding on algae and plankton.
Where to find them: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah; Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Park, California.
8. White-nosed coati
This sleek mammal (sometimes called a coatimundi) is a close relative of the raccoon and has adapted to a variety of climates, including deserts and rainforests, though in the United States it is primarily found in the arid Southwest. The coati’s most distinctive feature is its long, flexible snout, which it uses to dig around in soil and leaves for grubs and other food. The coati also has a particularly large tail that makes up about half the length of its body—and which it uses to keep its balance as it adeptly climbs trees.
Where to find them: Saguaro National Park and Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona; Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico; among other southwestern parks.
9. Mountain beaver
This furry, stubby creature is not a beaver at all, but a different type of rodent that has made its home in the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest for roughly 40,000 years. Sometimes called a sewellel, this primitive critter spends much of its time nibbling at trees, hanging out in damp brush, and drinking enormous quantities of water. It looks cuddly, but think twice before you get too close, as the mountain beaver has two unsavory traits: It eats its own poop, and acts as a host for yet another quirky creature, the world’s largest flea.
Where to find them: Mount Rainier, North Cascades, and Olympic National Parks, Washington; Redwood National Park, California.
10. Canopy jumping spider
This common southeastern arachnid is one of the largest species of jumping spiders in the Southeast. It is sometimes referred to as the “teddy bear” of the spider world because of its large, round eyes, the distinctive black tufts on either side of its face, and its fuzzy, often colorful body. It has amazing eyesight, and its fangs, or chelicerae, come in shades of metallic blues and greens. It’s agile, too. Though only about the size of a dime, the canopy jumping spider can leap more than fifty times its height!
Where to find them: Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee, among other eastern parks.
11. Channel Islands fox
This small fox is native to six of the eight Channel Islands, and found nowhere else on Earth. It is one of the smallest canine species in the world, weighing in at just four or five pounds, and the only carnivore unique to California. Each island in this remote park is so isolated that the foxes evolved with slight physical variations, creating six unique subspecies. The park started a captive breeding program in 1999 after sharp population declines from predation threatened the foxes’ survival. The program successfully reversed the animals’ near-extinction, and today their populations have mostly recovered.
Where to find them: Channel Islands National Park, California
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About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's award-winning podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, writes and edits a wide variety of online content, and manages NPCA's style guide.