Nothing gives Missouri Department of Conservation naturalist Alan Reed the warm fuzzies like talking about Missouri mammals.
Missouri has more than 70 species of mammals, Reed told his audience during a virtual presentation Thursday. Mammals are generally defined animals that have fur, produce milk for their young and are warm-blooded. Those in Missouri range in size from beefy buffaloes to pipsqueak shrews.
Only one, the opossum, is a marsupial, carrying its young in a pouch until they're sufficiently mature to emerge and cling to their mother's back. The rest are placental mammals, carrying their fetuses in their uterus until late in development.
Each species has its own role to play in Missouri's ecosystem. For example, bats may devour thousands of flying insects per night, while carnivorous mammals like foxes help control populations of rodents. Mammals also benefit Missouri's economy — deer hunting contributes a whopping $1.1 billion annual, Reed said.
"And they're fun to watch," he added.
Reed highlighted a few of his favorites, including some lesser-known Missouri mammals.
"Anywhere there's water, we have the opportunity to find beavers," Reed said.
Beavers are well-known for their habit of chopping down trees with their teeth, then constructing dams to live in.
"They can chew down a 6-inch willow tree in about 15 minutes," Reed added.
The entrances to those dams are located underwater, making it hard for potential predators to gain access. Beaver's dense, oily fur allows them to quickly shed water and stay warm while swimming. Though beaver dams are common, it might be harder to spot their inhabitants — they're often active at night. Webbed tracks along the water's edge and tell-tale gnawed stumps reveal their presence.
Beaver young stay with their parents for a couple of years before moving out to build their own dams, he said.
"This is one of my favorites," Reed said.
Badgers are large, flattened in profile and primarily dark gray in color, with a white stripe down the center of their face and enormous front claws. In Missouri, they're spotted most often in prairies in the western part of the state.
They're primarily carnivorous, devouring small mammals like gophers, moles and voles, but also rattlesnakes, birds and bugs. Using powerful claws, they dig into the ground in pursuit of their prey. They also eat some plants.
"They're very vulnerable to extirpation as their habit degrades," Reed said.
Extirpation is when an animal is eliminated in a certain area, like a county or state — though it may still exist elsewhere.
Missouri's three vole species are among the lesser known of the state's rodents. They resemble a mouse but are chunkier and with a shorter and hairy tail.
"You may have experienced them in your flower bed or in your garden," Reed said.
He recently forgot to clear leaves from his wife's garden bed for the winter; voles moved in and ate the roots of their hostas. They also eat dead animals, nuts and fruit. Their presence is revealed by a trail of dead plants and walnut-sized holes along a garden's edge.
A single vole can have between five and 10 litters of young per year.
American black bear
"Black bears are increasing in numbers in Missouri," Reed said.
They're most common in Webster, Douglas and Wright counties but have been reported in Callaway County. People often spot sows (female bears) with their cubs, or young bears who've recently set out on their own.
Bears are omnivorous, eating just about anything that will fit in their mouths. That includes fish, berries, carrion, grasses and nuts. But they're also happy to lick birdseed out of people's bird feeders or tear into beehives. This behavior should be discouraged — if a bear shows up in your yard, it's best to take your bird feeder down, Reed said.
"Once they get established, they're going to come back," he said. "We have this saying — a fed bear is a dead bear."
A bear that loses its fear of people and houses is more likely to make a nuisance of itself, he explained. But observed from a distance, bears are fascinating creatures, he said.
"If you ever get to see one, that's considered very much a plus," Reed added.
Armadillos are slowly spreading north through Missouri as the climate warms. Though active at night, when they dig for the grubs they like to eat, armadillos are often seen in the daytime — dead along Missouri's roads.
"Their defence mechanism is to jump up and curl in ball," Reed explained. "That's why you see so many armadillos dead in the road. When the car drives over them, they jump up, hit the undercarriage and then they die."
He recommends always wearing gloves when handling a dead armadillo. Armadillos' shells can host the bacteria that causes leprosy, though it's unclear whether leprosy has ever been transmitted between humans and armadillos in the United States. Armadillos have proven useful for scientists researching leprosy, because the bacteria doesn't readily grow in laboratories.
Another of Reed's favorites, flying squirrels are common across the state but rarely seen, as they're active exclusively at night.
Flying squirrels might be more accurately called gliding squirrels: They leap out of trees and soar through the air on flaps of skin extending along their sides. A squirrel can glide up to 30 yards, Reed said.
They commonly live in abandoned squirrel or woodpecker holes, though they also sometimes move into peoples' attics.
"At one point in the past, you could buy these that were bred in captivity as pet," Reed remembered, noting his college roommate had one. "I would not recommend that for a number of reasons, including that they're active all night long."
Missouri is home to 14 species of bats, eight of which are in danger of extirpation due to loss of habitat, killing by humans and the fungal disease White-Nose Syndrome.
That's a pity, Reed said.
"Bats are an interesting interesting animal," he said. "We could talk the whole program about bats, that's how interesting they are."
As the only true flying mammal, bats flap around on what amounts to a highly specialized webbed hand. Those that eat insects (which includes all of Missouri's bats) hunt in the dark by echolocation: They emit a high-pitched squeak, which echoes off flying prey. Their acute hearing helps them locate moths, beetles, mosquitoes and other flying insects, which they can snatch out of mid-air.
During the day and in the winter, bats shelter in caves, trees, abandoned buildings and attics.
To learn more about Missouri mammals, visit mdc.mo.gov. To view and registrer for future online events, go to mdc.mo.gov/events.