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
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).
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 evaulation 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
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. They 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. So I
saved my final choice for a bat, and also managed to include a diurnal
species of elephant-shrew among the "top 50."
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 seeing something that is rare is
exciting, this category was not emphasized as much as qualities of
uniqueness (i.e., is there any other species like it?) and
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 newly-described one from New Guinea did.
The same problem applies to the lemurs of Madagascar.
Ring-tailed Lemur (shown above) 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. 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 three 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, one
monkey, and one antelope. I do include three bears, one seal, one
hyena, one pig, and four cetaceans, plus such absolutely unique mammals as
Aardvark, pangolins, colugos, a monotreme, an armadillo, a Madagascar carnivore, and three 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
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. Almost all involve species
within a single genus (e.g., any of the 8 species of pangolin in genus Manis)
but I 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 or 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 10 in
Eurasia, 8 in Africa, 6 in the Neotropics, 4 in Australasia, 3 entirely pelagic, and
3 in Madagascar.
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 are also good; Wikipedia
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