by Ron L. Kettlewell
Education Assistant, Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History
what makes a mammal | whose home is in our area | residents of point lobos
In Days Gone By
In 1603, Sebastian Vizcaino led three Spanish ships into Monterey Bay on an exploratory mission. He discovered that the lands around the bay teemed with wildlife: grizzly bears and tule elk roamed the lakes and marshes of the Salinas Valley; herds of pronghorn antelope graced the foothills; wolves, mountain lions, and the occasional jaguar preyed upon the plentiful supply of deer and rabbits; and black bear patrolled the rugged mountainous terrain of the interior.
The Monterey County landscape has changed dramatically since the arrival of the first European explorers, and much of our natural heritage has been lost or severely reduced, but there are still places which have survived relatively intact where we can get a glimpse into the past. Point Lobos State Reserve is one of the most easily accessible areas for the casual visitor or even the longtime resident to observe much of the remaining wildlife and natural beauty of our areas.
The group of animals which we call mammals began to evolve about 185 million years ago, during the time when the dinosaurs were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates on our planet. Mammals remained relatively obscure as a group until after the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago. Since that time, mammals have adapted and evolved to inhabit every major surface environment on the planet, and, of course, have given rise to its dominant species - ourselves.
What Makes a Mammal?
Mammals are distinguished from other animal groups by the following characteristics:
1. Mammals breathe air with lungs.
2. Mammals are warm-blooded (a characteristic shared only with birds).
3. Mammals have true fur. Mammals give birth to live young (only a few mammals lay leathery eggs).
4. Mammals produce milk for their young from mammary glands.
Whose Home is in Our Area
Monterey County is home to about 95 species of terrestrial and marine mammals, ranging from some very common species to some exceptionally rare ones. Eighty-eight species are native mammals - mammals which occur naturally in our area and have been present for thousands of years. Seven species have been introduced to the county in historic times, either as unwanted pests or as furbearers. Five species have been extirpated (completely eliminated) from the county in historic times. While none of these species is extinct, their loss from our natural biota is unfortunate. We hope this loss will not be duplicated by any of the remaining native mammals.
Residents of Point Lobos
Point Lobos State Reserve is a good place to observe some of our native terrestrial mammals. At least 23 species inhabit the reserve, and several other species occasionally enter the reserve from surrounding areas. Unfortunately, the best time to observe many of these animals is late in the evening or very early in the morning, when the reserve is closed. Some species are active during the day, though, and if you're lucky enough to be at the reserve when it is foggy, many of the nocturnal species may become active well before nightfall. Watch for evidence that the animals are present in the Reserve. The dusky-footed woodrat builds a unique nest. Scat or droppings can be found almost everywhere in the Reserve. Look for tracks in the wet or muddy soil showing the travel routes of animals. The following is a compilation of the most common mammals to be found in the Reserve.
Gray foxes are silvery gray with conspicuous patches of yellow, brown, or white on the throat and belly. Red foxes have been introduced in some areas of Monterey County, but only the gray fox is present in the reserve. The gray fox feeds on small rodents, birds, berries, insects, and fungi, and it is able to climb trees in order to find food. It is generally nocturnal and very shy, carefully avoiding humans as much as possible, but occasionally it may be seen during the day hunting for food or "mousing" in the quieter sections of the forest.
Coyotes can occasionally be seen within the confines of the Reserve, though they probably den somewhere in the hills along San Jose Creek. They prey mainly on rabbits, mice, and ground squirrels, but will also eat fruits, berries, insects, and carrion when available. Coyotes have adapted well to human activity due to their nocturnal nature and versatile appetites. They may be glimpsed prowling around the less visited sections of the Reserve during the late evening or early morning hours as they search for food.
Of all our native mammals, the raccoon has adapted to human activities the most successfully. Their black masks and ringed tails are common sights throughout the county, especially along creeks and near human habitation. They are opportunistic feeders, eating almost anything edible, including many invertebrates, fruits, nuts, berries, crayfish, frogs, small rodents, birds, and eggs. Being extremely curious and clever, they also enjoy knocking over garbage cans in their nightly search for food.
Long-tailed weasels are the only true weasel found in Monterey County. They are a small, long-bodied weasel with chocolate-brown fur and a black-tipped tail. They prey upon a large variety of warm-blooded vertebrates such as mice, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and small birds. They are active at any time of the day, and prefer to hunt and den in rock piles, fallen timber, and stacks of wood. Watch for these quick, sleek predators in areas of the Reserve that have high rodent populations or dense thickets of undergrowth.
Badgers are large members of the weasel family with special adaptations for burrowing. They have stout, flattened bodies, powerful forefeet, and silvery gray, faintly striped fur. They feed mainly on ground squirrels and pocket gophers, which they dig up from their underground nests. Badgers are usually found in open, grassy areas with sandy soils, but occasionally they are observed within the Reserve, hunting for their next meal. Patches of disturbed ground in the meadows may indicate that a foraging badger is in the vicinity.
Of the two types of skunk present in Monterey County, the striped skunk is probably the most well-known. It has long fur and a bushy tail with two broad stripes down its back. Striped skunks are omnivores, eating many types of insects, worms, rodents, berries, bulbs, and corms. They also have adapted well to the presence of humans, due to their opportunistic nature and formidable defenses. They are mainly nocturnal, but sometimes may be seen roaming about throughout the Reserve during the late afternoon or early evening.
Opossums are the only marsupials native to North America. They were introduced near San Jose about 1910 as furbearers, and have since spread throughout the warm, cultivated lowlands of Central California. Opossums feed on almost anything edible: insects, mice, birds' eggs, nuts, berries, and carrion. They are nocturnal, spending the daylight hours holed up in dens, in rocky crevices, hollow tree trunks, under logs, in brush piles, or in other animals' abandoned burrows. Watch for these animals in the Monterey pine forest during the early morning or late evening hours when they may become active.
Mountain lions are the second-largest carnivore still to be found in Monterey County (only the black bear is larger.) They are a very large cat with a distinctive sandy color and a long tail. Their food consists of deer, rabbits, squirrels, rodents, and birds. They inhabit many of the forested and brushy regions of the county, but they are very shy and seldom seen. Mountain lions don't live within the confines of the Reserve, but occasionally they will come down out of the hills while hunting food, and be observed within the Reserve on quiet, foggy mornings.
Bobcats are much smaller than mountain lions, but larger than domestic cats. They are easily recognized by their spotted fur, short tails, tufted ears, and broad whiskers. They prey upon rabbits, squirrels, rodents, birds, and reptiles. Bobcats can be found throughout the county in brushlands, foothills, chaparral, sagebrush, and forests. Unlike the secretive mountain lion, bobcats can be quite bold, and may sometimes be approached quite closely. Remember that they are wild animals, keep your distance. They may be observed while hunting in most areas of the Reserve, often well into the daylight hours.
Black-tailed deer are the largest remaining herbivore naturally found in Monterey County. They are small to medium-size deer with reddish coats in summer, graybrown coats in winter, large ears, and a black-tipped tail. They eat a variety of grasses, leaves, forbs, and acorns. They inhabit most of the forested and brushy areas of the county, and have even managed to survive in the more developed areas by keeping to golf courses and cemeteries during the daylight hours. Black-tailed deer are commonly seen grazing throughout the Reserve, especially in the morning or early evening, or when surprised from their daytime beds within the forest.
Western gray tree squirrel
The western gray tree squirrel is a large, silver-gray squirrel with a very large, bushy tail and white underparts. It eats a wide variety of fruits, nuts, seeds, acorns, green foliage, and truffles. Western gray tree squirrels are usually associated with oak woodlands, but they are quite common in the Monterey pine forest as well. They are diurnal, being active during the daylight hours. They may be seen throughout the forested sections of the Reserve, especially near the picnic areas, where they sometimes seem quite tame.
California ground squirrel
California ground squirrels are generally grayishbrown in color with mottled, light flecks. They eat many types of seeds, berries, tubers, and leaves of grasses, forbs, and woody plants. They usually make their burrows in open, well-grazed grasslands, but can occasionally be found living in open clearings of forests near fallen timber. They are diurnal as well, and like their cousins, can often be observed near many of the picnic areas watching for handouts or leftovers. They are wild animals and can bite, so keep your hands up and do not feed them.
Pocket gophers, like moles, spend most of their time burrowing underground. They are rodents which have become adapted to digging; they have very small eyes and ears, large forefeet, and stocky bodies. They also possess fur-lined cheek pouches in which they carry food for storage in their labyrinthine tunnels. Botta pocket gophers are usually dull brown in color and prefer to live in areas with light, sandy soils. They feed mainly on roots, tubers, bulbs, and the tender bases of growing plants. They are active during the day, but will rarely ever be seen above ground. The only sign of their presence is usually a gopher mound, a small mound of earth pushed outside of an obvious tunnel entrance, which can sometimes be found in the drier meadows or clearings in the forest.
Dusky-footed woodrats are quite common in Monterey County. They are of medium size, with a grayish brown coat, large ears, and a scantily furred tail. They eat a variety of leaves, flowers, nuts, berries. and truffles. They are nocturnal, but their presence may be detected by the large nests of twigs, leaves, and bark which they build on the ground in a protected spot such as near a rock outcrop, or inside blackberry brambles. Look for these nests in the brushier sections of the Reserve, or near fallen timber in the forest. The male woodrat will build a large nest in the branches of the cypress trees.
Brush rabbits are small, short-legged rabbits with moderately pointed ears and white cottontails. They eat many kinds of grasses and forbs, especially sow thistle and sea lettuce. They favor areas of dense brush for protection and cover, and are therefore seldom seen. They can be diurnal or nocturnal, so watch for them near thickets of blackberries or dense shrubs, or crossing the trails.