Alaska has over 430 species of birds, the largest population of bald eagles in the nation, and the largest carnivorous land mammal in the world (the brown bear; the polar bear is considered a marine mammal). From pygmy shrews that weigh less than a penny to gray whales that weigh anywhere from 16 to 45 tons, Alaska is the Last Frontier for animals as well as people. Species endangered elsewhere are still abundant in Alaska.
Below is information about a few of the favorite animals that visitors to Alaska love to see (information from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife Notebook Series
Bald Eagles were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in 2007.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
These birds of prey are easily recognized in their adult years by the white feathers on their head. These feathers do not turn white however until the eagle is four or five years old. Adult Bald Eagles can reach up to 14 pounds in size and have a wingspan of 7 1/2 feet. The eagles usually nest in large trees near the coastline or near large rivers and their diet primarily consists of fish, small mammals, waterfowl, crabs, urchins, and carrion. During the winter, large congregations of Bald Eagles, numbering in the thousands can be found in places like the Chilkat Valley near Haines, Alaska where spawned out salmon provide plentiful food. Learn more about Eagles (.pdf 86kb)
Black Bears have an excellent sense of smell.
Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
These bears can be found in most of Alaska's forests and are usually much smaller than brown bears or polar bears. Despite their name however, black bears can occur in several colors and nicknames have arisen for the different colors observed including 'cinnamon bears' (light brown) and 'glacier bears' (bluish-white). Just like brown bears, black bears are omnivores and their diet can include vegetation, berries, salmon, carrion, moose calves, and even insects. Also like brown bears, black bears generally hibernate most of the winter with some Black Bears in northern areas hibernating as long 8 months of the year. Learn more about Black Bears (.pdf 77kb)
Male coastal brown bears may weigh as much as 1500 lbs.
Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)
These iconic creatures can be found throughout much of Alaska but variations in size, diet, and behavior have lead to distinctions between the bears living in different areas. Brown bears living in the interior of the state, which do not usually have access to streams full of spawning salmon, tend to be smaller in size and are commonly called 'grizzlies'. In comparison, the 'brown' bears of the coastal regions of Alaska feed on large amounts of salmon each year and can grow much larger then the 'grizzlies' of the interior. There is also a third subcategory, Kodiak brown bears, which are classified as their own subspecies and are exclusively found on the islands surrounding and including Kodiak Island. In addition to salmon being important in many of their diets, brown bears are omnivorous and will eat a variety of berries, grasses, roots, small mammals, and the occasional large mammal such as moose and caribou. Unfortunately, these iconic creatures have a bad reputation in many minds, but human-bear conflicts are almost always easily avoided.
Caribou (Rangifer tarandus)
These ungulates outnumber people in Alaska and have supported the subsistence lifestyles of native Alaskans for thousands of years. They live in lowland and alpine tundra and the northern forests of Alaska and are known for their large annual migrations. They are members of the deer family but unlike most members of this family, both males and females grow antlers that they shed each year. Reindeer are actually the same species as caribou, but are simply the captive siblings of caribou, and are herded by many cultures throughout the Arctic. As adaptations to thrive in their arctic environment, caribou have thick hair with hollow fibers that provide excellent insulation as well as large, wide hooves that distribute weight evenly for easily walking in deep snow. Learn more about Caribou (.pdf 52kb)
Adult Dall Sheep in Denali National Park
Dall Sheep (Ovis dalli dalli)
Dall Sheep are masters of the mountains and you'll probably have to do some hiking to catch a glimpse of these animals. They generally inhabit high alpine meadows and ridges and spend most of the year divided into groups of males and groups of females with their young. Male sheep, or 'rams' have large curly horns that they will use to establish dominance among other males by butting horns with one another. Female sheep also have horns that are smaller and slightly curved. A sheep's age can actually be found by counting the growth rings on their horns. Some Dall sheep have grown as old as 19 years but 12 years of age is the average lifespan. Learn more about Dall Sheep (.pdf 51kb)
Male lynx can weigh as much as 40 pounds
Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis)
Bull moose must regrow their large antlers each summer.
Moose (Alces alces)
Moose are the largest member of the deer family with some males growing as large as 1600 pounds. They can be found throughout most of Alaska's mainland feeding on aspens and willows. Male moose or "bulls" grow large antlers each summer to be used in courtship displays. Males clash their antlers with other males for the right to mate. These antlers are then shed during the winter to be regrown all over again next year. Its common for females to give birth to twins which they will raise until the calves are about one year old. At that time the calves are chased away by the mother so that she can give birth to more calves. Learn More about Moose (.pdf 55kb)
Mountain Goats in Alaska are generally found below an elevation of 5,000 feet.
Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus)
These "rock goats" are the least studied large mammal in North America and this makes sense when you consider they can be found at elevations from sea level to above 10,000 feet in some of the most rugged and remote areas of the continent. In Alaska, the range of Mountain Goats extends from Southeast Alaska to the Chugach and Wrangell mountain ranges of Southcentral Alaska and a few islands where they have been introduced. They can be distinguished from the other white coated, hooved animal in the mountains, the Dall Sheep, by their short black horns and their white fur coats that are much longer and shaggier then Dall Sheep. Male goats, or 'billies' can reach as much as 350 lbs in weight and are known to travel large distances to mate with females or 'nannies'. Similar to the Dall Sheep, mountain goats spend most of their lives in areas of steep and rugged topography to protect themselves from predators. Even hours old juvenile goats or 'kids' can navigate steep rock faces with ease. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for avalanches to sweep these goats from their rocky havens in winter months. Learn more about Mountain Goats (.pdf 53kb)
Both male and female adult Muskoxen grow horns.
Muskox (Ovibos moschatus)
Muskoxen are related to sheep and goats. They may weigh as much as 800 pounds and possess a thick long coat of fur to keep them warm in their frigid arctic environment. Similar to the behavior of male Dall Sheep, male muskoxen will charge each other in aggressive displays of dominance that culminate in a loud sounding collision of horns. Its helpful then that these animals have such thick horns and skulls to protect their brains from trauma. Muskoxen have also adapted a very successful strategy for dealing with natural predators. If confronted with a predator, the adults of the herd will form a tight knit circle with their horns facing out and the juveniles of the herd protected in the center. Learn more about Muskox (.pdf 55kb)
Note: This Embedded video resides on the official Alaska National Park YouTube channel
Orcas travel in groups known as 'pods'
Orca (Orcinus orca)
These easily recognizable marine mammals, commonly known as 'killer whales', are actually the largest member of the dolphin family. They can grow as large as 27 feet long and weigh as much as 13,000 pounds and that characteristic dorsal fin that you may be lucky enough to spot plying the waters of Alaska's coast can reach a height of 6 feet in male Orcas. These creatures can live as long as 80 years and like to travel in groups called 'pods' and can be found in most of Alaska's marine waters. the prey of Orcas ranges from fish to sharks, to other marine mammals such as seals or porpoises. Learn more about Orcas (.pdf 44kb)
Polar Bear cubs will stay with their mother for over two years.
Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)
Polar Bears are the kings of the arctic environment, roving the desolate sea ice in search of prey. Males can grow as large as 1700 pounds and 10 feet in length and they are well adapted to their arctic maritime home. In fact, due to the fact that polar bears spend much of their life on the sea ice, they are actually classified as marine mammals instead of terrestrial mammals. Their thick white fur allows them to stay warm and camouflaged while hunting prey such as ringed seals and their large webbed feet distribute their weight atop thin sections of sea ice and allow the bears to swim efficiently across open water. Learn more about Polar Bears (.pdf 42kb)
The dense fur of sea otters gives them their great buoyancy.
Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris)
Willow Ptarmigan plumage will change with the seasons.
Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus)
There are actually three species of ptarmigan in Alaska but the Willow Ptarmigan is the most common of the three found in the state and has been the official State Bird of Alaska since 1955. These birds have brown or brown and white plumage in summer months depending on their gender but in winter the feathers of both males and females are completely white, allowing them to blend well into Alaska's snow covered wilderness. In spring, the males will become territorial in anticipation of the mating season which occurs soon after the snow melts. The young chicks will usually hatch by early July and are able to fly about eight to ten weeks later. All three species of ptarmigan are known for occasional significant fluctuations in numbers from year to year. An area that may seem void of ptarmigan one year can see a population explosion the following year.
Learn more about Ptarmigan (.pdf 71kb)
Wolverines possess a powerful jaw and strong neck muscles.
Wolverine (Gulo gulo)
The wolverine is known as a strong, sometimes aggressive, and usually solitary animal. However, their reputation as a viscious animal that is willing and able to fend off bear and wolves from a carcass is exaggerated. The wolverine is still an impressive animal however. They possess a strong jaw and neck muscles allowing them to bite into bones and frozen carcasses. In winter you'll find them feeding mostly on carrion while in summer they will generally hunt voles, snowshoe hare, squirrels, and birds but they have been known on the very rare occasion to take down a moose or caribou. Their feeding habits require them to travel great distances and they've been observed traveling 40 miles in one day with the average home range for a single male wolverine ranging from 200-260 square miles. Males will defend this home territory fiercely from other males during breeding and denning season and that is usaully the only time of the year that individual wolverines will interact with one another. Most of the year, wolverines are solitary and reclusive, and you would be lucky to see a wolverine anywhere near a population center. Learn more about Wolverines (.pdf 42kb)
Average wolf pack size is 6 or 7 animals
Wolves (Canis lupus)
Wolves live in over 85% of Alaska in a wide variety of habitats. They range in color from black to almost white. They are highly social animals that live in packs with a strong hierarchy between members. The top position of that hierarchy is filled by the alpha male and alpha female of each pack, who are often the pack's only breeding pair. One advantage the pack structure gives wolves is the ability to take down large prey that an individual wolf would have difficulty with, such as a full grown moose. Besides moose, wolves are known to feed on caribou, Dall sheep, deer, mountain goats, beaver, hares, rodents, and sometimes fish and birds. Learn more about Wolves (.pdf 46kb)
If you are an educator make sure to stop by our Statewide Education Kits page for information on how to check out kits for use with your students! Available kits include the: Wolf Kit, Bear Kit, Bear Safety Kit, Bird Beak Adaptations Kit, Marine Mammals Kit, Loon Kit, Track Kit, and many more.
Kids, make sure you play the Our Wild Neighbors game to learn more about Alaskan Wildlife!
Did You Know? Many birds annually migrate up to 20,000 miles between South America and Alaska in order to breed and raise young, returning south prior to the return of the Arctic winter.