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North Atlantic Right Whale

Eubalaena glacialis

Range/Geographical Distribution: The western population of the north Atlantic right whales range from temperate to polar latitudes in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean between 20° and 60° latitude. Distribution changes throughout the year as they migrate along the eastern seaboard, from Iceland to Florida. Calving areas occur off the shallow coasts of Georgia and Florida during the winter months. Nursery and summer feeding grounds are in New England and stretch north to the Bay of Fundy and the Scotian Shelf (Nova Scotia). An eastern population exists, although its numbers are near extinct, that migrates from Eastern Europe to the northwest coast of Africa.

Habitat: Right whale habitat is heavily dependent upon food density. They are often found along coasts and shelf waters, where nutrient levels are high. Some deep ocean activity has been documented.

ESA Critical Habitat:

  1. Coastal Florida and Georgia
  2. Great South Channel (Gulf of Maine)
  3. Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay (New England)
  4. Bay of Fundy (Maine and Canada)
  5. Scotian Shelf (Nova Scotia) 

Description: Stocky body, lacking a dorsal fin on their broad, flat back. Right Whales are a baleen species and exhibit characteristic callosities on their head. These patches of raised calluses are unique and are used for identification purposes. The white color of the callosities is due to the presence of colonies of cyamids or whale lice. There are two sides the whale’s blowhole, causing a distinct V-shape when water and air exit. The fluke is deeply notched in the center with smooth edges. 

Size: Adults are 45-55 feet long, with the head accounting for one third of the total length. At birth, calves are 13-15 feet in length and weigh 2,000 lbs. Adults weigh 200,000 lbs.

Food: Various zooplankton, primarily copepods, that are skimmed through their baleen plates. Euphausiids and cyprids are nutrient sources as well.

Breeding: The only known calving grounds for the north Atlantic right whale is the critical habitat off coastal Georgia and northern Florida. The average age of birthing mothers is 10 years old and females calve every three to five years. After a one year gestation, calving occurs from December to March and peaks in January.

Predators: Large sharks and the killer whale.

Conservation Status: Right whales are one of the rarest and most endangered of all marine mammals. Their population decline is a result of whaling, which reached its peak in the 1700’s. Forty percent of this whale’s mass is blubber, making it the “right” whale to hunt as it floated once killed.  Combined with its accessible coastal habitat and slow speed (6 mph), the whaling industry hunted this mammal to near extinction. In 1935, the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling made it illegal to commercially kill right whales although Japan and the Soviet Union refused to sign the agreement.  The right whale was listed as endangered under the United States’ Endangered Species Conservation Act in June 1970 and listed as “depleted” in the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1973.  There are only 300-400 north Atlantic right whales globally.  The north Pacific right whale population is estimated to be even fewer.

Interesting Facts: Right whale oil is obtained from its blubber and is referred to as “train oil”. Whale oil was also used to illuminate lamps, for heating, and to make candle wax. Early lighthouses even burned whale oil. It was also used in the preparation of margarine and as the basis of a popular steel protective paint. Other uses include the manufacturing of soap, textiles, jute, varnish, and explosives. The baleen of right whales was used in hoopskirts, corsets, chimney sweeps, umbrellas, and whips.

On the Coast: Coastal Georgia is listed as one of the north Atlantic right whale’s critical habitats as it is where calving mothers give birth. The South Atlantic Bight’s shallow, warm waters provide a high nutrient concentration with few predators. The Georgia DNR Non-Game Conservation Unit does aerial monitoring of the mammals and helps prevent this whale’s two major anthropogenic mortalities: fishing gear entanglements and ship collisions.

Common Bottlenose Dolphin

Tursiops truncatus

Range/Geographical Distribution: Bottlenose dolphins can be found in all oceans and seas at tropical and temperate latitudes.

Habitat: Coastal populations reside along the continents and most oceanic islands, including bays and estuaries.  Pelagic populations live offshore in places like the Gulf Stream of the North Atlantic.

Description: Although there is considerable variation in this species, common bottlenose dolphins tend to have a wide head and body, a short beak (snout), long flippers, and a tall dorsal fin.  The body color consists of shades of gray with strong counter shading (darker above and lighter below).  The flippers, fluke, and dorsal fin are a dark gray.  Rake marks, caused from other dolphins’ teeth, are often seen on the body.  Pelagic animals tend to be larger than coastal ones.

Size: Adults range from eight to 12 feet long and can weigh over 1,000 lbs.  At birth, calves weigh 30-45 lbs. and are 33-55” long.

Food: Coastal populations eat fish and invertebrates near the ocean floor.  Pelagic populations eat pelagic fish and squid and have been known to dive over 1,600 feet.  Bottlenose dolphins are often attracted to fishing boats and have learned to feed near shrimp trawlers.

Breeding: After a one-year gestation, mothers give birth to calves and then nurse the calf for up to 20 months after birth.  Females only give birth every three years and calves may be born during any season, although winter births are less common.

Predators: Sharks and killer whales.

Conservation Status: Worldwide, the common bottlenose dolphin is abundant but some local populations are at risk from habitat degradation, fishery conflicts, viral outbreaks, pollutions, and hunting.  Dolphins were killed in fisheries in the United States until the 1920s, in the Black Sea until the 1990s, and are still hunted in Japan.

Interesting Facts: Groups of related female dolphins may stay together for many years and pair bonds between males are known to last at least 20 years.  Bottlenose dolphins often “bow ride” on ships and surf in all kinds of waves. 

On the Coast: Coastal Georgia bottlenose dolphins can be seen along the beach or within the rivers and estuaries.  Georgia’s uniquely large tidal range allows dolphins to forage by strand feeding – herding fish up onto the mud flats along estuaries where the dolphins then pick up the fish off of the mud.  Local dolphins also display “begging” behaviors and approach boats for handouts.  This unnatural behavior can have many negative effects on individual dolphins including malnourishment, boat collisions, and loss of natural foraging behaviors.  Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act it is illegal to harass or feed dolphins and doing so can result in fines up to $100,000 and a one-year imprisonment.

American Mink

Mustela vison

Range/Geographical Distribution: Throughout most of Canada and the United States except the Canadian Arctic and the desert southwest.

Habitat: Streams, lakes, swamps, and marshes.

Description: Small semiaquatic mammal with a long, low body.  Body a dark brown with a white spot on the chin and sometimes on the chest. 

Size: Head and body 12-16 inches long and tail six to eight inches long.  Can weigh up to 2.5 lbs.

Food: Hunts in water during the summer and on land during the winter.  Eats small mammals, crayfish, frogs, snakes, and birds.

Breeding: Breeds early in the year and has up to ten babies in April or May.

Predators: Birds of prey, owls, fox, coyotes, lynx, and otters.

Conservation Status: Listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List.

Interesting Facts: American mink are commonly kept on fur farms and escaped animals from these farms can have detrimental effects on native local wildlife due to the mink’s voracious hunting habits.  Some countries have already banned these types of fur farms.  Mink are good swimmers and excellent tree climbers. 

On the Coast: Mink can be seen along Georgia’s coastal waterways scavenging for food and scampering along the edges of the beach or marsh.

Northern Raccoon

Procyon lotor

Range/Geographical Distribution: Southern Canada, most of the United States, Mexico, and Central America to Panama.

Habitat: Mostly in wetlands, damp woods, and suburban areas.

Description: A medium-sized, gray mammal with a black mask and a short, black-ringed tail. 

Size: Head and body16-24” long, tail six to 16” long. Can weigh up to 33lbs.

Food: Diet is dependent on habitat but generally includes fruits, plants, nuts, berries, insects, rodents, frogs, eggs, and crayfish.

Breeding: Raccoons breed in early spring and females give birth to two to seven young in late spring.

Predators: Foxes, bobcats, owls, and eagles often prey on young but most deaths occur from automobiles.

Conservation Status: Classified as least concern on the IUCN Red List. Abundant and even hunted in some areas for their fur.

Interesting Facts: Raccoons are nocturnal and have excellent night vision.  They can run up to 15 mph and are very agile tree climbers.  Raccoons are more closely related to pandas than weasels and they only live two to three years in the wild.  These mammals do not hibernate but may stay in a den for days during bad weather. 

On the Coast: Raccoons can be seen foraging along coastal Georgia’s marshes, dabbling in the water for prey and manipulating it with their front paws.  There footprints are also often seen in the mud along the saltmarsh.

Northern River Otter

Lontra canadensis

Range/Geographical Distribution: Most of Alaska, Canada, and the northwest and eastern United States.

Habitat: Lakes, streams, rivers, swamps, and coastal areas.

Description: Large, semiaquatic mammal with short legs and a thick, tapering tail.  The feet are webbed and the body is brown above and silvery below.  Pale orange eyes. 

Size: Body is 26-31” long and the tail is 12-20” long. Can weigh up to 24lbs.

Food: Fish, frogs, crayfish, and shellfish.

Breeding: Females give birth to two to four pups in early spring.  Otters mate again soon after the young are born and implantation is delayed for eight to nine months.

Predators: Bobcats, coyotes, alligators, and birds of prey.

Conservation Status: Now missing from much of its original range due to hunting although current protection and reintroduction efforts are helping bring back the population.  Threatened by water pollution and habitat loss.

Interesting Facts: River otters make slides on mud banks and ice slopes.  They are also strong swimmers and swim with their head above the water and their body below.  Their ears and nostrils can be closed to keep water out during diving.

On the Coast: River otters are found along most of Georgia’s waterways and may be seen swimming in rivers or hauled out onto docks.  Piles of shells and crab claws, along with feces, are sure signs that an otter is nearby.

West Indian Manatee

Trichechus manatus

Range/Geographical Distribution: Along the mid-Atlantic coastal region of the United States through the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico south to the coastal parts of north and central-eastern South America.

Habitat: Found in freshwater, brackish, and marine waters such as canals, rivers, estuaries, and bays. 

Description: A large, round aquatic mammal with gray or light brown skin that is often covered in algae and barnacles.  Has small eyes, stiff vibrissae around the mouth, and a rounded tail. 

Size: Adults can reach 13 feet in length and weigh up to 3,500 lbs. At birth, calves are about three feet in length and weigh about 60 lbs.

Food: Vegetarian; eats sea grasses, marsh grasses, marine algae, water hyacinth, and hydrilla.

Breeding: Manatees mate and give birth year round.  Females have one calf at a time that often stays with its mother for one or two years after birth.

Predators: Adults have no natural predators but often collide with the hulls and propellers of boats.

Conservation Status: Listed as Endangered both in Georgia and Federally. Classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Interesting Facts: Manatees are not territorial and may be found alone or in small groups.  They communicate with chirps and clicks and reach sexual maturity between three and five years of age.  Manatees have a slow metabolic rate and must consume 10-15% of their body weight in vegetation every day.  These mammals can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes while resting. 

On the Coast: Manatees cannot tolerate waters below 68˚F and therefore are only present along the Georgia coast during the summer.  They migrate to central and south Florida during the winter to find natural and industrial warm waters.

Wild Boar

Sus scrofa

Range/Geographical Distribution: Native to Africa and Eurasia but has been introduced to the United States and is now found from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas.  Also in California and the Hawaiian Islands.

Habitat: Forests, low-lying areas, and dry brush.

Description: Large land mammals with a stocky body and upward curving tusks.  Usually blackish or gray-brown but coloration varies.  Feet have four toes and young are striped or spotted. 

Size: Can reach 3.5’ tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 350 lbs.

Food: Omnivores, will eat acorns, roots, fruit, small animals, and bird eggs.

Breeding: Females have up to 12 young in a litter and may have two litters per year.

Predators: Adult boars are hunted by humans, bears, packs of wolves or dogs, and panthers. Young pigs may be eaten by dogs, coyote, bobcats, raccoons, birds of prey, and even larger hogs.

Conservation Status: Listed as least concern on the IUCN in its native habitat.

Interesting Facts: Wild boars are nocturnal and feed mostly at night.  Males are solitary but females may be found in large groups called sounders with their young.  Boars can live up to 15 years.  Both males and females have tusks, although the females’ are smaller, which they use to root out their food. 

On the Coast: Wild boar cause considerable environmental damage along Georgia’s coast including killing native vegetation and eating native animals such as sea turtle eggs.