Wildlife Through the Eyes of Lewis and Clark

The research on this page was done by Kelly Heitkamp for her Girl Scout Gold Award Project and was sponsored by the Dakota Zoo Crew.

As you walk through the Dakota Zoo, be on the lookout for animals seen by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.Lewis and Clark collected information on 122 mammals, fish, reptiles and birds. See how much you can learn about what Lewis and Clark saw.

Other Lewis and Clark sites include:


American Badger Prior to Lewis and Clark’s journey, Thomas Jefferson and other American naturalists who were associated with him were not aware that the badger was native to this country.

“I have in two instances outrun this animal and caught it. In this rispect they are not much more fleet than the porcupine.” - Meriwether Lewis

American Bison Lewis and Clark’s diaries include many entries which clearly indicate their astonishment at finding buffalo on the plains of the Dakotas and Montana in such numbers that they could only guess at the size of the herds.

I ascended to the high Country and from an eminance I had a view of a greater number of Buffalow than I had ever seen before at one time. I must have seen near 20,000 of those animals feeding on this plain.” - Meriwether Lewis

American Elk Elk were seen and killed frequently in the Dakotas, Montana and western Oregon. During the winter of 1804-05 in the Fort Mandan area north of Bismarck, the expedition killed 50 elk.

“The buffalow and elk is astonishingly noumerous on the bank of the river on each side, particularly the elk which lay on most every point in large gangs, and are so jentile that we frequently pass within 20 or 30 paces of them without their being the least alarmed.” - William Clark

American Gold Eagle The explorers, in referring to this bird, called it either the Grey Eagle or the Calumet Eagle. Lewis’ first contact with the Golden Eagle evidently occurred during the winter at Fort Mandan. Under the date of April 8, 1805, he wrote as follows:

The only birds that I observed during the winter at Fort Mandan was the Missouri Magpie, a bird of the Corvus genus, the raven in emmence numbers, the small woodpecker or sapsucker as they are sometimes called, and the beautiful Calumet bird, so called from the circumstance of the natives decorating their pipe stems with its plumage.” - Meriwether Lewis

Bald Eagle Above the Little Missouri River, and near the mouth of the Yellowstone bald eagles were abundant enough to command attention.

“We continue to see a great number of bald Eagles, I presume they must feed on the carcases of dead animals, for I see no fishing hawks to supply them with their favorite food.” - Meriwether Lewis

Bighorn Sheep Those animals feed on the grass which grows on the sides of this mountain and in the narrow bottoms of the water courses near the steep sides of the mountains which they can make their escape from pursuit of wolves, bear, etc.

“The places they generally select to lodg is in the crannies or crevices of the rocks in the faces of inaccessible precepices yet these anamals bound from rock to rock and stand apparently in the most careless manner of many hundred feet.” - Meriwether Lewis

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog  Lewis and Clark first observed the prairie dog, shortly after entering South Dakota. This remarkable rodent appears to have challenged their interest and curiosity to a greater degree than any other ground squirrel that inhabited the plains of the Missouri.

“When at rest above ground their position is generally erect on their hinder feet and rump; thus they will generally set and bark at you as you approach them. Their note being much that of little toy dogs, their yelps are in quick succession and at each they give a motion to their tails upwards.” - Meriwether Lewis

Canada Goose Goose shooting for sport was not permitted. Waterfowl and other birds were killed only when the big game was scarce, or when specimens were wanted for study.

“Saw many gees feeding on the tender grass in the praries and several of their nests in trees; we have not in a single instance found the nest of this bird on or near the ground.” - Meriwether Lewis

Canada Lynx The Canada Lynx is not uncommon in northern North Dakota in the winter months and specimens have been taken in many other parts of the state.

“I lined my gloves and have a cap made of the skin of the Louservia of (the wild cat of the north) the fur near 3 inch long.” - William Clark

Coyote We have been unable to determine whether or not Lewis and Clark were the first explorer-naturalists to call attention to the coyote, but certainly they were among the first to report on its general appearance, habits and distribution.

“Several wolves visited our camp today, I fired on and wounded one of them very badly, the small species of wolf barks like a dog, they frequently salute us with this note as we pass through the plains.” - Meriwether Lewis

Gray Wolf They were an important factor in the ecologic complex of the continent before the white man took over. They eliminated the weak, diseased and hapless individuals among prey species; they helped to prevent over-population from developing within the ranks of many species.

“The country in every direction around us was one vast plain in which innumberable herds of Buffalo were seen attended by their shepherds the wolves.” - Meriwether Lewis

Great Horned Owl  The great horned owl is a common permanent resident of the Missouri valley in North Dakota.

“I saw two large owls with remarkable long feathers on the sides of the head which resembled ears; I take them to be the large hooting owl tho’ their colours brighter than those of the U’ States.” - Meriwether Lewis

Grizzly Bear Tracks of “white” bear were seen at the mouth of the Moreau River, in South Dakota, on October 7, 1804, but no grizzlies were encountered until the party reached the mouth of the Heart River near Bismarck, North Dakota.

“Our hunters killed 10 deer and a goat today and wounded a white bear, I saw several fresh tracks of those animals which is 3 times as large as a man’s track.” - William Clark

Moose Here Lewis and Clark led all naturalists, as usual; for the American Moose, had no scientific standing in their day. No moose were killed, probably because so few of them were seen by the hunters.

“Saw some mooce Deer which was much larger than the common deer.” - Sergeant Ordway

Mule Deer Most authorities, including Coues and Seton, credit Lewis and Clark with having written the first accurate descriptions of the mule deer.

“The Indians pursued a mule buck near our camp. I saw this chase for about 4 miles; it was really entertaining, there were about twelve of them in pursuit of it on horseback, they finally rode it down and killed it.” - Meriwether Lewis

North American River Otter It was mentioned for the first time by Clark on October 22, 1804, when the party arrived at the mouth of the Heart River, near the present site of Bismarck, North Dakota.

“The fur of both the beaver and otter in this country are extreemly good; those animals are tolerably plenty near the sea coast, but are by no means as much so as on the upper part of the Missouri.” - Meriwether Lewis

Northern Bobcat The explorers saw more skins than live specimens. Only one of these wild cats was killed by a member of the expedition during the winter and spring of 1805-06.

“The natives of this country make great use of the skins of this cat to form the robes they wear; three whole skins is the complement usually employed and sometimes four in each roab.” - William Clark

Porcupine Near the entrance of the river mentioned in the 10th course of this day, we saw an unusual number of porcupines from which we determined to call the river after this anamal, and accordingly denominated it Porcupine River.

“I walked out a little distance and met with 2 porcupines which were feeding on the young willow which grow in great abundance on all of the sandbars; this animal is exceedingly clumsy and not very watchful.” - Meriwether Lewis

Pronghorn Antelope Such an animal was never yet known in the United States. The skins were stuffed in order to send back to the city of Washington, the bones and all.

“We found the Antelope extreemly shye and watchful insomuch that we had been unable to get a shot at them; and as they are watchfull and extreemly quick of sight and their sense of smelling very accute, they will frequently discover and flee from you at the distance of three miles.” - Meriwether Lewis

Raccoon Since Lewis and Clark were thoroughly familiar with the raccoon of Eastern United States they gave it only slight attention.

“The raccoon is found in the woody country on this coast in considerable quantities – the natives take a few of them in snares and dead falls, tho’ appear not to vallue their skins much, and but seldom prepare them for ropes.” - Meriwether Lewis

Red Fox The large red fox of the plains, and the kit fox are the same which we met with on the Missouri and are the inhabitants almost exclusively of the open plains, or of the copse of bushes within the plain country.

“I saw near those bluffs the most beautiful fox that I ever beheld, I endeavored to kill this anamal but he discovered me at a considerable distance, and finding that I could get no nearer, I fired on him as he ran and missed him.” - Meriwether Lewis

Rocky Mountain Goat This is the first reference in the journals to the Rocky Mountain Goat not technically described until 1816:

“The Indians inform me that they finde this animal on the high mountains to the W and SW of them. It is white and that it’s horns are lunated comprest twisted and bent backward as those of the common sheep.” - Meriwether Lewis

Sandhill Crane At present the species does not appear to be in any danger of extinction despite the fact that their numbers have been greatly reduced since the early years of the present century.

“The hunters brought in a living young sandhill crain; it has nearly obtained its growth but cannot fly. Its colour is precisely that of the red deer. This young animal is very fierce and strikes a severe blow with its beak.” - Meriwether Lewis

Snow Goose The white brant is very common in this country particularly below tidewater where they remain in vast quantities during the winter. They feed like the swan, gees, etc. on the grass, roots and seeds which they find in the marshes.

“There is no other difference between them and the common or gray brant but that of their colour. Their note and habits are the same and they are frequently seen to associate together.” - Meriwether Lewis

Sparrow Hawk (American Kestrel) On April 13, 1805 while in the vicinity of the Little Missouri River, it was recorded that the sparrow hawk was found there. The smallest and most beautiful hawk found in North Dakota. Insects such as grasshoppers are an important part of its diet.

“Saw the small hawk, frequently called sparrow hawk, which is common to most parts of the U. States.” - Meriwether Lewis

Swift (Kit) Fox Formerly abundant in the Missouri valley and other parts of North Dakota swifts are friendly and confiding animals and as a result they have practically disappeared from the state.

“It burrowed in the ground somewhat like the small wolf and its tallons appear longer than any species of fox I ever saw and seem therefore prepared more amply by nature for the purpose of burrowing.” - Meriwether Lewis

Western Pocket Gopher Although Lewis and Clark did not actually see the Dakota pocket gopher, Lewis described the mounds of earth thrown up by this rodent:

I have observed in many parts of the plains and praries, the work of an anamal of which I could never obtain a view. Their work resembles that of a salamender common to the sand hills of the states of South Carolina and Georgia, and like that animal also it never appears above ground.” - Meriwether Lewis

Whistling Swan Lewis and Clark must be awarded the distinction of having coined the popular name, Whistling Swan, for the most abundant and widely distributed swan in America.

“We first saw them below the great narrows of the Columbia near the Chilluckkittequaw nation. They are very abundant in this neighborhood and have remained with us all winter. In number they are fully five for one of the large species.” - Meriwether Lewis

Whitetailed Deer A few deer did not go far with 45 hungry men. If allowed they could have easily consumed four or five in a single day.

“By 10 am they had all returned to camp having killed seven deer. These were all of the common fallow deer with the long tail. I measured the tail of one of these bucks which was upwards of 17 inches long.” - Meriwether Lewis

Wild Turkey Lewis and Clark in 1804 reported wild turkeys in western Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. Their notations are of interest because they are among the earliest accurate records dealing with the distribution and abundance of the species in the Missouri valley above the Platte River.

“A greater quantity of turkeys than we had before seen, a circumstance which I did not much expect in a country so destitute of timber.” - Meriwether Lewis