Of the 800,000 total animal species (or kinds) in the world, how many have you seen personally? Have you kept track of those you have seen (probably not as these include insects and other invertebrates)? Have you ever heard of an animal checklist?
Perhaps you are familiar with a group of devoted animal adherents called “birders.” Birders or “bird watchers” are well known for constantly looking for (and often keeping records) birds they see and can identify. Many use “checklists.” A checklist is a printed listing of all birds known from certain areas, such as a state or national park, state, or geographical area, perhaps even an entire country or continent. There are blanks in each checklist beside each bird’s name to record specifics about sightings (date, location, etc.). There are around 8,600 bird species worldwide, so there are almost always birds to see and record wherever you live.
Bird watchers may visit any place where a bird is likely to be seen, including their own backyard feeding station, neighboring orchards or even nearby public parks. Some visit specific habitats, such as marshes to look for wetland-adapted shore birds. When seen, definite sightings are recorded on checklists as they are identified. Novices, even veterans, carry field guides containing avian color photos or pictures or other information so identification can be certain. Many birders maintain lifelong checklists. Being a bird watcher includes having a curiosity/love for birds, a pair of binoculars and willingness/ability to make the effort to get out-of doors, perhaps travel, and identify feathered fauna in a variety of weather conditions. At least once a year at Christmastime, birders organize and participate in an end-of-the-year census or bird count to assess numbers and presence of species of local and migratory birds.
Not so common are other animal checklists. My favorite animals are mammals, so I will discuss them here as examples. There are only about 60 percent as many species of mammals, 5,000, as compared to birds; only amphibians have fewer species than mammals, about 1,500.
Most mammals (except bats) are confined to the earth’s surface or subsurface, and their movements are much less rapid and less likely to be seen than birds. Hence, the process of building an extensive checklist of identified mammals is more laborious than birding–though equally rewarding. These watchers are folks who similarly look for and record sightings and experiences with mammals. As you know, mammals are warm blooded animals with hair, females with milk glands giving birth to living young (we humans are classified as mammals). Common animals classified as mammals include aquatic mammals (such as whales, dolphins, seals, manatees), aerial mammals (bats) and terrestrial four-footed mammals (as elephants, bears, squirrels, mice, kangaroos). These are widely distributed throughout the earth. There have been extensive mammal extinctions in earlier periods of the earth’s history and even today some kinds of mammal populations are so low they are considered threatened and/or endangered.
Animals, including mammals, can be detrimental to man. Some destroy grain, cereal and other crops, some are vectors harboring disease organisms, and some are known to physically attack humans. However, many kinds of mammals have been useful to man throughout the ages. Even today, they serve as beasts of burden, transportation, medical research subjects, and subjects of aesthetic enjoyment. Mammals continue to be useful for food, fur and body parts, as pets, as quarry in sport hunting and even for subsistance survival in some parts of our planet.
Mammal sightings may occur in zoos, animal parks or actually out in the wild—in national forests and wilderness areas, in oceans and rivers; in fact, in almost any habitat imaginable. A favorite activity of some families is to visit national and state parks, water parks, shorelands, ride ATV trails, etc., all the while keeping a sharp eye out for wild mammals. Newly identified mammals are readily added to personal or family checklists which continue to grow and grow.
There are a number of sources of checklists. Many parks, national and local animal interest groups, nature trails, etc., maintain checklists of local animals. Look on the internet under “Checklists” to find one you might be interested in. One such mammal checklist is found at: nsrl.ttu.edu/publications/opapers/ops/op229.pdf. This checklist lists all mammal species and subspecies north of Mexico (in the U.S. and Canada) giving common, scientific and subspecies names.
Let’s briefly talk about animal names. As humans, each individual has unique names, usually two or three names that become ours alone, as Alex Brian Smith. In the past, some human cultures have used only a single name, leading to great confusion among descendants trying to find their ancestors. Among animals of similar kinds (or species; not as each individual as in humans), each has a unique name or “handle” called a scientific name. A scientific name is a universally recognized two or three word name given to specific kinds of animals. No two different kinds of animals have the exact same scientific name, even though some species are quite similar. The first part of a scientific name is the Genus, followed by the Species name. For example, a red fox’s scientific name is Vulpes fulva. As shown here, when written out, scientific names are underlined or printed in italics. Often, scientific names reflect a quality of the animal in Latin word roots: “fulva” means red. Along with the scientific name, most animals also have a common name, as “red fox” above. Common names are easier to use and remember. However, a difficulty is that several very distinct and different kinds of animals may all have the same common name (See Wildlife2Day. com website article, “When is a Gopher Really a Gopher?).
Kinds of animals living close to one another interbreed and produce fertile offspring. These are considered by scientists to be the same species. Over time, members of the same species living apart and under different environmental or other stresses may eventually adapt body differences, such as differing hair coloration. These are then given “subspecies” names, the third name following the genus then species name to distinguish them from each other–but they can still crossbreed and reproduce fertile young. Changes resulting from environmental factors (flooding, catastrophic storms, coal strip mining, production of dense smoke by new factories), human activity (turning former habitat into housing subdivisions, roads, airports, etc.), or other factors often cause a permanent separation of similar animal populations. Over longer periods of time, even thousands of years, this separation or isolation (and possibly) other factors may result in formerly adjacent, similar species to no longer have the ability to crossbreed and produce fertile young. Hence–a new species!