Underrated and Overlooked

Wildlife species that deserve your love and attention.

When you think of wildlife, what species come to mind and gets you excited about our natural world? It could be the symbolic bald eagle, revered bison, or iconic wolf. There are probably many charismatic species you’ve come to know and love, but we want to introduce you to some less popular wildlife that also deserve some hype.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works to conserve, protect, and enhance countless wildlife species, and every single one of them contributes to biodiversity. Even the animals you see every day (and ones you’ve never heard of) play an important role in the ecosystems they inhabit.

Who knows… after getting to know these underrated and overlooked species you might find your new favorite animal!

Gif of Tina Fey from GIPHY

Yellow-bellied marmot

Yellow-bellied marmot sprawled out on a rock
Photo: Yellow-bellied marmot at Yellowstone National Park/Ray Fetherman

Our first lovable species on this list might be familiar but often overlooked! It has reddish brown fur, a dark face, is about 2 feet long, weighs up to 11 pounds, and has a yellow-colored underside. Meet the yellow-bellied marmot. Have you already met this large species of ground squirrel? How many times have you hiked right past one without another thought? Yellow-bellied marmots are common to high elevation habitats from southwestern Canada down through the Rocky and Sierra Mountains.

In the winter, they are literally cool, as these highly adapted mammals drop into their burrows and drop their body temperature down to 41 degrees Fahrenheit to settle in for a long winter’s nap. During their impressive hibernation period that can last 200 days each winter, marmots can also slow their heart rate to 30 beats per minute, taking only 2 breaths per minute.

Yellow-bellied marmots can be brave, too! The alarm calls made by these alert surveyors of their habitat are an important warning signal for many other small mammals to take cover from predators. Yellow-bellied marmots also chatter their teeth to threaten other animals. Don’t tell them we think it’s rather adorable. The burrows created by yellow-bellied marmots are found across grassy or open slopes. These burrows are also an important contribution of the yellow-bellied marmot, as other animals use their vacated burrows to shelter, stash food, or even find a safe place to sun themselves while staying near to a quick getaway.

Kendall Warm Springs dace

small golden, shimmery fish
Photo: Kendall Warm Springs dace at Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery in South Dakota by Sam Stukel/USFWS

Dressed with considerably drab colors (and a little sparkle!), the Kendall Warm Springs dace might not look like anything special, but it is! It’s a great example of how long-term isolation of part of a species can lead to the creation of a sub-species. At some point, possibly thousands of years ago, a waterfall in the Upper Green River in Wyoming became substantial enough that speckled dace were no longer able to move upstream over it. The small remaining population that was isolated above the falls resulted in the subspecies now known as the Kendall Warm Springs dace. Way to make it your own, small fry!

This endangered fish was historically sought after as fish bait, which resulted in a declining population. It solely resides in Kendall Warm Springs in Wyoming which consists of a mere 984 feet of stream at an elevation of 7,840 feet. Not only does it have a limited habitat, but the Kendall Warm Springs dace is the only fish in Bridger-Teton National Forest that resides in 85°F waters — the little guy has evolved to handle very warm temperatures! Since its home range is very small, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with Bridger-Teton National Forest to protect the fish and its habitat.

Western pearlshell mussel

Western pearlshell mussels underwater and surrounded by moss and rocks
close-up of mussel larvae in fish gills
Left Photo: Western pearlshell mussels by Roger Tabor/USFWS | Right Photo: Western pearlshell mussel larvae on fish gills by Kristen Cook/USFWS

All freshwater mussels are unsung heroes, including the Western pearlshell, the only freshwater mussel found in trout streams in Montana. The Western pearlshell has conservation status in almost every state that it resides in and plays a vital role in managing healthy waterways. Not only does it cycle nutrients from the water into larger particles that juvenile fish and aquatic insects can feed on, but it also acts as a filter and cleans the water surrounding it. An adult Western pearlshell can filter around 20 gallons of water a day, which helps improve habitat and water quality for other fish and wildlife species, and us!

Let’s also talk about the unique lifecycle of freshwater mussels! Their kids are called glochidia. Glochidia are actually microscopic mussels that hatch from eggs that then harmlessly attach themselves to the gills or fins of certain passing fish. In Montana, the Western pearlshell’s historical host fish is the Westslope cutthroat trout, but it varies by states in the West. After up to several months safely growing among their host fish, the mussel babies drop from the fish and burrow into the river or lake bed. The Western pearlshell then lives an average of 60 to 70 years and can reach 100 years old! Sedentary is supreme for this hero of the waterways.

Preble’s meadow jumping mouse

mouse sitting next to wall in grass
Mouse in torpor held in a hand covered in a brown leather glove
Left Photo: Preble’s meadow jumping mouse by Rob Schorr/Colorado Natural Heritage Program | Right Photo: Preble’s meadow jumping mouse in torpor by Rob Schorr/Colorado Natural Heritage Program

At no more than 9 inches in length, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse is small but mighty. Its large feet can launch this little mammal up to 12 feet! Making up 60% of their total body length, the mouse’s long tail comes in for an assist by adding balance and strength to those large leaps.

Have you ever noticed these small mammals along a streamside while out looking for other wildlife? You can recognize Preble’s meadow jumping mouse by a distinct dark stripe down the middle of its back, bordered on either side by gray to orange-brown fur. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is some common mouse unworthy of observation. Preble’s meadow jumping mouse is a federally threatened species endemic to the uplands of Colorado and Wyoming, meaning they’re found no where else in the world! Consider yourself lucky to spot this little friend. They can be found late spring through early fall among vegetation and immediately adjacent to upland habitats along the foothills of southeastern Wyoming south to Colorado Springs along the eastern edge of Colorado’s Front Range.

Other cool facts about this mighty mouse: while other mice rarely live to be 1 year old, Preble’s meadow jumping mouse is a long-lived species that can be found over 2 years of age in the wild. Oh, and they are great swimmers! Can you dive for a full minute? Preble’s meadow jumping mouse can!

Sharp-shinned hawk

Sharp-shinned hawk standing on the ground
Photo: Sharp-shinned hark by Belen Bilgic Schneider/Creative Commons

Swooping in as our last special species is the smallest of all hawks found in the United States and Canada, the sharp-shinned hawk. Profiled less frequently than the red-tailed hawk or the Cooper’s hawk, these secretive creatures fly under the radar in the animal world as well, rarely catching the attention of unsuspecting prey. They use their size and short wings to their advantage, navigating through narrow trees to get in close to their prey. Then, they fly full speed and surprise attack! These hawks can burst out of bushes to grab small birds or pounce from low branches.

The sharp-shinned hawk also has several traits that deserve your attention. Named “sharp-shinned” based on the lateral keel on their legs that provide leverage for flying, this hawk also exhibits reverse sexual size dimorphism. This means that males average just over half the size of the females, a rarity among raptors. Females are notably bigger. One leading interpretation is that having bigger females reduces the food competition between both sexes. If you’re a songbird in the bushes, watch out for the sharp talons of these speedy hawks. If you’re a person who cares about the ecosystem, thank this predator for so swiftly managing habitat!

Though these animals might be lesser-known, they still deserve to be cared about. A balanced and diverse ecosystem relies on all species that inhabit it, including ones that either aren’t as familiar or are so familiar we might take them for granted! Did you find a new favorite animal after learning about these underrated and overlooked species?

Kim Kardashian dancing while holding a camcorder in a crowd
Gif of Kris Jenner from GIPHY

Story by Jessica Sutt, Allison Stewart, and Mikaela Oles — Public Affairs Specialists in Colorado

We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store