Book of the Week: Wild Animals of North America

Here in the Washington, D.C. area, where the BHL Secretariat is housed, North American wildlife is a hot topic with the grand opening of the new National Zoo American Trail exhibit. The exhibit features some of the most iconic American species, including the Bald Eagle, Gray Wolf, North American Beaver, and the Otter. We’ve been celebrating the exhibit all week on Twitter and Facebook, and we thought it only natural to further commemorate American fauna with our book of the week. To do so, we’ve selected Wild Animals of North America (1918), contributed by the American Museum of Natural History.

Wild Animals of North America

Edward W. Nelson, American naturalist and ethnologist, penned Wild Animals of North America for the National Geographic Society over the course of two magazine issues: The November 1916 issue, which focused on Larger Mammals of North America, and the May 1918 issue, devoted to North America’s smaller mammals. These issues were enhanced by famed painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who also illustrated the spectacular Album of Abyssinian Birds and Mammals from Paintings (which we featured as a book of the week in 2011). Agassiz, who had done previous work for the Society on The Book of Birds, crafted over five dozen stunning portraits of the animals described within the text for this title.

National Geographic clearly understood the importance of this work, expending $100,000 for the production of the two original magazine articles which sired this book. The success of the issues prompted the Society to combine them into the comprehensive Wild Animals of North America.

Wild Animals presents 119 “animal biographies,” which present not just pictures and scientific facts about the species, but also entertaining anecdotes about Americans’ interaction with these creatures.

Take, for instance, the account of the American Buffalo. Nelson writes that,

A number of men now living were privileged to see some of the great herds of the West before they were finally destroyed. Dr. George Bird Grinnell writes:

‘In 1870, I happened to be on a train that was stopped for three hours to let a herd of buffalo pass. We supposed they would soon pass by, but they kept coming. On a number of occasions in earlier days, the engineers thought that they could run through the herds, and that, seeing the locomotive, the buffalo would stop or turn aside : but after a few locomotives had been ditched by the animals the engineers got in the way of respecting the buffaloes’ idiosyncrasies.’

And one of our favorite excerpts from the book is a photograph and caption depicting the introduction of black and brown bear cubs:

Species Highlights

For this post, we’ve selected a few of the our favorite of the 119 species Nelson describes, accompanied by Fuertes’ enticing paintings. We’ve provided additional links and images for those species below which are also found in the new American Trail exhibit. See a full list of species you’ll encounter in the exhibit by visiting the zoo’s website.

See all of the images from our book of the week on Flickr, and check out select illustrations on Pinterest.

Alaskan Brown Bear

“The great brown bear of the Alaskan peninsula, Ursus [arctos], and his cousin, Ursus middendorffi, of Kodiac Island, are the largest of all bears, as well as the largest carnivorous animals in the world. [The Polar Bear, of roughly the same size, is documented as the largest bear alongside the Kodiak]. While sometimes attaining a weight of 1500 pounds, they are, as a rule, inoffensive giants, taking flight at the first sight of man. But when wounded, or surprised at close quarters, they give battle, and their enormous size, strength and activity render them terrific antagonists.

“The world did not know of the existence of these bears until 1898.

“During the spring the Alaska brown bear lives upon the salmon which come up the rivers and creeks to spawn, while in the summer and fall they eat the sedge of the lowland flats, grazing like cattle, and varying their diet with small mammals and berries which they find in the hills.”



 North American Beaver

“Beavers belong to the rodent family – a group of animals notable for their weak mental powers. The beaver is the striking exception to the rule, and its extraordinary intelligence, industry, and skill have long excited admiration….

“[Beavers] are very proficient in building narrow dams of sticks, mud, and small stones across small streams for the purpose of backing up water and making ‘beaver ponds.’ In the border of these ponds a conical lodge is usually constructed of sticks and mud…The mud used by beavers in building dams and houses is scooped up and carried against the breast, the front feet being used like hands.”

Three North American beavers are featured as part of the new American Trail exhibit. One, by the name of Willow, “is easily identifiable by a notch in her tail.”



“The moose is a large, grotesquely formed animal, with the most impressive individuality of any of our large game. Its great head, with oddly formed nose, huge palmated antlers, pendulous bell under the neck, short body, and disproportionately long legs unite to lend the impression that it may be a strange survivor from some remote geologic period.

“Although taller than an ordinary horse, weighing more than half a ton, and adorned with wide-spreading antlers, the bull moose stalks with ghostly silence through thickset forests.”

“In summer it loves low-lying, swampy forests interspersed with shallow lakes and sluggish streams. In such places it often wades up to its neck in a lake to feed on succulent water plants, and when reaching to the bottom becomes entirely submerged.”


Steller Sea Lion

“Sea-lions are near relatives of the fur seals and have a nearly similar distribution, both in far southern and northern seas…The Steller Sea Lion is the largest member of the group, the old bulls weighing from 1,200-1,500 pounds.

“They are preeminently animals of the most rugged of shorelines and the stormiest of seas, being superbly powerful beasts with extraordinary vitality. The ease with which they pass through a smother of pounding seas to mount their rugged resting places is an admirable exhibition of skill and strength. The males have a bellowing roar, on the rocks in savage unison with the booming of the sea against the base of their refuge…

“It is reported that an umbrella opened and closed suddenly in the faces of the old sea-lions appears to terrify them more than any other weapon and is used successfully in drives.

“At sea they have only a single known enemy to fear – the fierce killer whale.”

The American Trail exhibit features four of the Steller Sea Lion’s smaller cousin – the California Sea Lion. Two of them, Calli and Sophie, were rescued from the wild after being orphaned. A third, named Sophie, is Calli’s first pup.


Threatened Species Day

Today is threatened species day – a day set aside to raise awareness about the predicament facing thousands of species throughout the world today. It was originally established to commemorate the death of the last Tasmanian Tiger at the Hobart zoo in 1936.

While many North American species can be found on the Threatened and Endangered Species List, some of our most iconic, including the Gray Wolf and Bald Eagle – which were once doomed to possible extinction – have miraculously recovered and are no longer among those listed as threatened. Human conservation efforts had much to do with these status reversals, proving that when we come together to conserve, we can make a major impact. Let’s hope similar efforts can help restore the future for the species that still remain threatened.

Explore images of IUCN Endangered and Critically Endangered species on our Flickr page.

Learn how you can help conservation efforts with some ideas from the World Wildlife Foundation’s “Campaign for Change.”

Avatar for Grace Costantino
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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.