one birdwatcher's choices for
by Don Roberson
The mammals whose photos surround this box are wonderful: Humpback Whale, Giraffe, Hippopotamus, Ring-tailed Lemur. I treasure my experiences. Yet they don't qualify as among the "50 best mammals." That concept is reserved for the most unique, most impressive, most difficult to see, or rarest mammals in the world. I weigh these attributes and distill ~5000 species into just the "50 best mammals" on earth.

    all photos and text on this page © Don Roberson

It should be apparent that these are personal choices influenced by my preferences. This project evolved from my 50 best birds in the world concept. I am foremost a birder, but I have been fascinated with large mammals since I was a child. I have made numerous special trips whose goal is to search for special beasts. There are ~10,000 birds in the world, and ~ 5,000 mammals, so it is not possible to see all the birds or all the mammals within a lifetime. Figuring out the "best 50" birds and mammals helps one sort out priorities in travel. . . and is just plain fun. Links to my choices follow, but do read more about the concept of this list following these links.

There is no right answer to the question: what are the 50 best mammals of the world? A "top 50" list by an active field mammalogist — someone who is more interested in mammals than in birds — would be a different list, and in many ways a better one. I asked Vladimir Dinets and Jon Hall, both widely traveled field mammologists, for such a list of best mammals. Vladimir sent a "top 50" list and Jon a "top 30." I also asked another birder with a passion for mammals, Blake Matheson, and he graciously agreed to do so as well. It is very interesting to compare and contrast their picks (use the link below).

None of the lists in this project are lists of the rarest and most endangered mammals of the world. While the concept of "how rare" is a particular mammal enters into the evaluation process (see below), in this project that quality is balanced against other qualities. For a list of the "top 100" most endangered mammals, see the EDGE project (click on the button-link below). I was unaware of that project when compiling my own list, so I have not been influenced by their rankings.

It is interesting that in the EDGE 100, there are 15 rodents, 11 bats, 5 moles, 4 rabbits, and 3 shrews. Indeed, small mammals account for about half of the world's rarest beasts. Such small critters are quite interesting, but they are not typically found among those I consider the "best" mammals in the world. Size and ferocity are often qualities of my "best" mammals. I do note, however, that 3 rhinos are found in the EDGE's top 11 choices; I have 3 rhinos within my top 14. EDGE cites Yangtze River Dolphin (Beiji) Lipotes vexillifer as #5 on their list of rare mammals. In my listing it was not considered, since species that are extinct or are on the verge of extinction were not considered.

The idea of this project was to weigh and balance how impressive, how unique, how rare, and how hard to find each extant species is, and consider any special circumstances surrounding that species. Lions and tigers were the stuff of dreams as a kid, but a species' history or mystery can also come into play. I also wanted to ensure a diverse selection across continents and oceans, and throughout the spectrum of mammal biodiversity.

As a birder who is prepared to try to identify any bird species in the wild, I have yet to become entranced by mammals that can only be identified through dentition formulas, or that are tiny and nocturnal and essentially impossible to see, despite their abundance. I did not wish to include groups that can only be identified by trapping and examination in-hand. So there are no mice, rats, shrews, gophers, moles, golden moles, marsupial moles, and other similar small species on this list.

On the other hand, 20% of all mammals on earth are bats. I enjoy bats very much, and have added an "extra" category for them at the end of my list of fifty. Bats can be very difficult to identify in the field, but progress is being made on field identification by size, behavior, and echolocation calls, and roosting bats can often be sorted out.

I did not want to make this a list of the "rarest" mammals on earth. There are 1186 birds listed as threatened or endangered (Birdlife 2000) and 1179 mammals in a similar category (Burton & Pearson 1987). This means that about a quarter of the world's mammal species are rare. While a rarity is exciting, this category was not emphasized as much as qualities of uniqueness (i.e., is there another species like it?) and impressiveness.

Everyone wants to see a kangaroo in Australia sometime in their life [Gray Kangaroo, right, with joey]. The problem is that there are something like 50 species of kangaroo and wallabies in 11 genera, ranging from big red ones to small tree-climbing ones, and there are many species that are similar to other species. The biggest and most impressive ones are neither rare nor hard to see, and the smaller, rarer ones often resemble other, more common, species. So no Australian kangaroo made the "top 50," although a relatively recently discovered tree-kangaroo in New Guinea is on the list.

The same problem applies to the lemurs of Madagascar. Ring-tailed Lemur (shown at top of page) is an absolutely fabulous mammal, but it's not "top 50." It is not rare enough, it is comparatively easy to see, and there is a fine variety of other wonderful lemurs on that magic island, quite a number of which are endangered. Only the largest lemur and the strangest lemur, both quite rare and each unique (in their own genera), made my list.

Some indisputable unique and very interesting mammals did not make the list, including Giraffe and Hippopotamus shown in the opening photos. It is just that when thinks of the first trip to Africa, almost everyone wants to see a lion, leopard, elephant, rhino — it is just that hippos, giraffes, gnus, a parcel of antelopes, jackals, and warthogs are further down the 'want list.' The latter are just "too common" or "too easy" for the Top 50. Some will argue that lion, leopard, and elephants are also "common" or "too easy," and basically that's true enough,. Yet they are so special and so impressive that their comparative "easy" status is not that important: they are iconic. I've spent plenty of days in habitat without seeing a lion, for example — it may be comparatively "easy" but no trip is complete without one. The "King of Beasts" is Top 50 material in my book. Big, impressive, or dangerous animals are the most memorable for me.

I readily admit to a special affinity for big cats, great apes, rhinos, and huge whales. They impress me a lot more than typical grazers or rodents or raccoons. All seven big cats made my list; the four great apes are all here; and four picks went to rhinos. This means that almost a third of my choices are scattered among just three groups. Yet I am willing to make special trips and searches for these impressive mammals, something I cannot say is true for any rat, rabbit, or mole. In contrast, there is just one canid and two antelope. I do include three bears, one seal, one pig, and four cetaceans, plus such absolutely unique mammals as Aardvark, pangolins, colugos, a monotreme, an armadillo, a Madagascar carnivore, and four marsupials.

I did not choose any species that is heavily domesticated — no camels*, no wild ass or horse — nor did I include species whose population now consists almost entirely of re-introduced animals (e.g., White Rhinoceros, American Bison). Still, I regret there was not space to include any civet, otter-shrew, or wild goat — there are very interesting species among these groups.

* a tiny population of wild Bactrian Camel Camelus ferus exists in the Gobi Desert. These wild camels are highly rated among mammal-watchers — and they have a good point. However, somehow I just never got hooked on camels as I am on, say, antelope. This is ideiosyncratic and inconsistent, yet I'm okay with it.

I did permit myself one option that served to expand the picks somewhat. I was able to chose "any unicorn" if there were two or more such unicorn species that were closely related (usually the same genus) and if each was about equally rare, impressive, and/or hard-to-find. There are 9 such choices in this top 50 listing. Most all involve species within a single genus, but I did expand "any pangolin" to the entire family Manidae, and did expand the concept to include "any sirenid" as a single pick: these are the 3 species of manatee plus the South Pacific dugong. Together this might be considered the "sea cow" pick (my above-water shot of West Indes Manatee is above left).

Finally, I wanted to highlight diversity around the globe. There are many tropical mammals included but also some long-distance migrants and some species of the cold north. A dozen of the picks have ranges across several continents or oceans, but the rest of my choices are essentially distributed as 12 in Eurasia, 11 in Africa (plus 3 more in Madagascar), 6 in the Neotropics, 3 in Australasia, 3 entirely pelagic, and 2 polar iceshelf. The remaining 9 inhabitat multiple continents (e.g., 3 cats, a bear, a weasel, elephants, tapirs, pangolins, manatees).

There is a good deal of literature about mammals that is worth reading. I used Macdonald (1984) and many specialized field guides in researching mammals, as well as the first volume of the Handbook of the Mammals of the World. On-line resources also often had updated information on specific mammals. Jon Hall has the best mammal-watching site, with trip reports from around the world. Click on the button-link below.


* Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
* Burton, J. A., and B. Pearson. 1987. The Collins Guide to the Rare Mammals of the World. Collins, Glasgow.
* Macdonald, D., ed. 1984. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Facts on File, New York.

Page created 1-6 June 2002, revised 30 Aug 2010, 7 Dec 2014 & 18 Feb 2021
photos & text © Don Roberson