Peterson Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals

by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart

A reference guide to the behavior of North American mammals.



  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780618883455
  • ISBN-10: 0618883452
  • Pages: 384
  • Publication Date: 10/25/2011
  • Carton Quantity: 10

About the book

Oftentimes when we glimpse an animal in the wild, we have no idea what we’ve seen. We want to know, and field guides are an ideal aid for identification. But when we want to know more about the lives of these animals—their natural histories, their place in the larger ecological community, and where to look for them in the future—we can turn to Behavior of North American Mammals. This exciting addition to the Peterson Reference Guide series is highly readable and full of fascinating facts. For example, when an opossum plays dead, it isn't pretending: opossums actually do enter a catatonic deathlike state. Armadillos sequester air in their guts, blow up to twice their normal volume, and paddle across the water. And beavers stockpile food for winter by catching it in beneath a raft of branches, which gets frozen in place and keeps them well supplied until spring. A guide not to identifying mammals, but to understanding what they do, Behavior of North American Mammals provides detailed information on more than 70 species of mammals and includes illuminating and attractive photographs and drawings. Comprehensive, authoritative, and accessible, the book includes information on daily and seasonal activity, food and foraging, home range and habitat, communication, courtship and mating, development and dispersal of young, interactions with their own species, and interactions with other species. 


About the author
Mark Elbroch

Dr. Mark Elbroch is author and coauthor of several guides to natural history. He is currently the Science Director of Panthera's Jaguar and Puma Programs. He earned his doctoral degree while leading cougar projects in Southern Chile and the United States.

Kurt Rinehart

Kurt Rinehart is a professional wildlife biologist. He lives in Vermont with his wife and children.


This book attempts to capture and share portions of the rich, dynamic lives of many North American mammals. This is not a replacement for your Peterson Field Guide to Mammals, but a book to complement it. Think of the subtitle for this guide as “The Secret Lives of Mammals.” Our emphasis is on behavior and how mammals survive, reproduce, and interact with other animals and the environment in which they live. This information will not only fascinate and inform, but also leverage your time in the field and allow you to see and know more of what is happening when you watch wild mammals.


Mammals are warm-blooded animals with hair that feed their young with milk produced by the mother. Mammalian bodies regulate their own temperatures, and hair functions in many mammals as insulation and protection against temperature and weather. Lactation—the production of milk in mammary glands—allows mothers to provide sustenance to offspring as they develop outside the womb. These traits have allowed mammals to extend their collective range from pole to pole, to inhabit nearly every aquatic and terrestrial ecological community on earth, and to build incredibly complex societies.



There are three easy ways to increase your knowledge of mammal natural history and behaviors: viewing wildlife, interpreting mammal tracks and signs, and delving into the literature—the books, articles, and other media that record and convey our collective knowledge of mammal life and behavior. Watching animals in the wild requires patience, stealth, and knowledge of where and how to find them. Of course, some species are more easily seen than others, and some places can make wildlife watching seem easy.

  In the Lamar Valley in northern Yellowstone National Park, with some patience and a spotting scope, you can watch wild wolves, coyotes, bison, elk, Brown Bears, Black Bears, ground squirrels, Red Foxes, and others. Atop Mount Evans in central Colorado you can easily observe Yellow-bellied Marmots, American Pikas, Bighorn Sheep, and Mountain Goats. There are plenty of books, websites, and employees of parks and refuges out there expressly to help you find these places. Any opportunity to watch animals move and interact with each other is valuable, and you shouldn’t wait until your next vacation to do so. Animals in zoos and wildlife parks are tremendously educational, and you can learn a lot from watching videos. Opportunities to watch urban and suburban wildlife abound, and even domestic animals provide us some insights into wild animals. Watching domestic cats hunt in the garden teaches us much about their wild counterparts. There is also new technology to help you watch wildlife at night, whether you are awake or not. New night-vision goggles expose nocturnal animals, and inexpensive remote cameras unobtrusively record mammal behaviors throughout the day and night while we are away.

  Learning to interpret wildlife tracks and signs will open a window to the hidden behavior of wild animals. Scratches on the trail are territorial scrapes of coyotes; girdled saplings are sites of feeding Snowshoe Hares. This book doesn’t teach you how to identify tracks and signs, but it supplies the critical knowledge necessary for finding and interpreting them. It will provide the “why” that is so important to understanding the bits and pieces you observe directly and indirectly through tracks and signs in the field. Some excellent field guides to wildlife signs are Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species (Stackpole Books) and the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks, 3rd ed. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

  There are literally tons of printed material written about mammal behavior and natural history. Information can be found in literary accounts of naturalists; in field guides to mammals, forests, and regions of North America; in magazine articles; and in scientific journals. Every resource has something to offer. At one extreme, scientific publications are frustratingly opaque to most people, but they are the foundation of our knowledge of wildlife behavior. At the other extreme, various Internet sites deliver easily accessible information, but often of unknown accuracy. The species accounts provided by museum and university websites are often quite informative, and Wikipedia, too, provides wonderful accounts for many species. For many mammals, there is also a host of printed books for readers of all backgrounds and interests.

  Your local libraries and universities should have excellent books and journals, as well as special web-based search tools to help you find what you are after. Universities also maintain a staggering number of online subscriptions to the scientific journals that publish the latest research. The help of a librarian will be invaluable in learning to navigate the various different sources of information.


Two handy concepts to help understand mammal behavior are niche and fitness. An animal’s niche describes how an animal makes its living, including what it does and where it does it. Wolves are social predators of large ungulates, which they hunt by coursing, or running, in packs. Chipmunks are solitary, seed-hoarding, burrowing rodents. There are more technical definitions of niche, but for now consider it as a snapshot of what a particular animal “is.”

  Fitness, on the other hand, helps us imagine the “why.” Fitness is the quality of success experienced by an animal. In ecology, it is measured by how well one reproduces—the continuation and proliferation of an individual’s genes into the future. Evolution selects for behavior that improves fitness, and keeping this in mind allows us to better interpret behavior. An animal has high fitness when it produces numerous offspring that themselves produce many offspring. Having offspring is not enough to ensure the continuation of one’s genetic heritage. An animal’s offspring need to survive long enough to breed, and their offspring too need to survive. Think of the measure of success as the number of grandchildren an animal has, since having grandchildren indicates successful production of offspring that were, in turn, able to survive and reproduce.

  A species’ niche is strongly influenced by its evolutionary heritage. Scientists use an evolutionary family tree to classify all living things based on how recently they shared a common ancestor. This book is organized phylogenetically, meaning “according to the evolutionary tree.” What this does in a practical sense is group species together in families—the “branches of the tree” that contain closely related, and therefore similar, species.

  You can improve your ability to understand any one species if you know something about the other members of the family. Many behaviors are common to entire families, and since space is limited, you might find an illustration for a behavior in another account in the same family as the one you are reading. That said, we wrote each species account to stand alone. If you are interested only in muskrats, walrus, or moles, you can find the relevant account and read the most economical, readable portrait we have been able to distill.


Each species account follows the same organization, with information broken down into eight topical sections: Activity and Movement, Food and Foraging, Habitat and Home Range, Communication, Courtship and Mating, Development and Dispersal of Young, Interactions among the Species (for example, Interactions among Armadillos), and Interactions with Other Species. We begin with a series of brief snapshots of the