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Whether they are on the endangered species list, only come out during certain times of the year, or are simply hard to see, these animals are rarely seen in Iowa.
1. Pileated Woodpecker
Around the size of a crow, the pileated woodpecker has a long chisel-like beak and red crest that swoops off the back of its head. It can be found in the far eastern edge of the state in forests with many standing dead trees and large dead logs. They drill distinctive rectangular holes to get to their favorite meal — carpenter ants. The nest of this woodpecker differs slightly from those of others because of the shape of the entrance, which is oblong instead of circular. The abandoned nest holes provide shelter and housing for other animal species such as owls, ducks, bats and swifts. This breed is monogamous, so if a mate dies the remaining one takes on a new mate, which is the main way new birds get a chance to breed. The pileated woodpecker is the second largest woodpecker in the United States with the critically endangered and possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker being the largest. “It’s big, and really striking when you see one,” says Chris Ensminger, wildlife research unit leader for the Iowa DNR.
2. Blue-Spotted Salamander
This slimy, blue-flecked fellow is an endangered species in Iowa and has only ever been located in Linn and Black Hawk counties. Its natural habitat lies within the forest, usually near ponds where the soil stays wet. They prefer vernal ponds because it is impossible for natural predators like frogs and fish to take up residence. A vernal pond is only temporary. They fill when the snow melts and slowly start drying up as the summer progresses. Unlike other species of salamanders, the blue-spotted cannot dig, but rather takes shelter underneath rotten logs or in leaf litter. Inconspicuous is a great word to describe this salamander, since they tend to only move around at night during the rain. They spend the rest of their time under the cover of leaf litter. Silt that gradually fills woodland ponds is a big cause of the decline in numbers for this amphibian.
After 150 years, there are now two confirmed sighting of fishers within Iowa. In November, a trail camera set up in Allamakee County captured video of one while another was later found on the roadside. The Minnesota DNR reported them taking over more area within southeast Minnesota, which is the likely origin of those spotted in northeast Iowa. Fishers are in the weasel family and look a bit like a fox with short legs. The fisher is a native species for Iowa, but due to the high demand for their fur combined with the general distaste for predator species by early European settlers (many predators were simply shot on sight), they were pushed out of Iowa. Unlike their name suggests, fishers don’t typically like fish. Instead, they prefer fruits, mushrooms, and small mammals, including porcupine (yes, porcupine!), which haven’t been present in Iowa since the 1800s.
4. Topeka Shiner
The Topeka shiner was originally found in 36 Iowa counties. Now it is confirmed to be in 13. This small minnow grows about 3 inches long and requires cool, clear streams for survival. Typically, the rocky or gravel-lined streams must occur in the prairie and flow year-round to be considered good habitat for the shiner. Even though they prefer a moving stream, Topeka shiners are most often found in the small side pools that branch off of the main waterway. The most distinguishing feature of this minnow is the long black stripe that runs from tail fin to head on both sides. The bright orange fins of breeding age males also stand out. Water quality changes caused by both humans and the environment are the leading reason the Topeka shiner reached the federal endangered species list.
5. Franklin’s Ground Squirrel
The Franklin’s ground squirrel dwells in tallgrass prairies. It looks comparable to other rodents with its short legs, large cheek pouches, and short furry tail. This animal is alternately known as the whistling ground squirrel because of its clear musical whistle and tendency to be more vocal than other similar species. They live in underground burrows made in the sides of steep slopes with well-drained soil, and have multiple entrances and branches with room for nesting and food storage. The Franklin’s ground squirrel lives throughout the Midwest and north into Canada, but many known populations, especially in Eastern states such as Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa, are declining. The biggest cause of the decline is the destruction of tallgrass habitats for urban expansion and agricultural purposes. They are also sometimes considered an agricultural pest and exterminated.
6. Eastern Whip-poor-will
Even though you may not often see a whip-poor-will in Iowa, you can hear them all summer. The ultimate challenger when it comes to hide and seek, their mottled gray and brown look makes them blend with trees and leaf litter almost seamlessly. “You commonly hear them but rarely see them because they’re so well camouflaged,” says Ensminger. These birds have large heads and a stout chest which gives them the stocky, front-heavy look common among nightjars. Whip-poor-wills are completely nocturnal and spend the night perched on the ground or in a tree branch waiting for insects to come close enough that they can fly up and eat them. Loud singing of their namesake call “whip-poor-will” can be heard continuously on spring and summer evenings; the easiest way to discover their presence. Loss of open understory forests due to urbanization and agriculture as well as natural fire suppression is the biggest threat to this species.
7. Smoky Shadowdragon
Though the name sounds intimidating, the smoky shadowdragon is merely a dragonfly that lives around large rivers, such as the Mississippi. It needs lots of rocks and logs within the water for larvae to cling to when they hatch. The larvae are easy to identify by their rhinoceros-like horn and short legs. This species, likely found on more rivers and streams than is currently known, tends to be good at hiding. Overall, the shadowdragon does well, but channelization, siltation, dredging, and water pollution all contribute to loss of habitat. To quickly tell this species apart from other dragonflies, look for smoke-colored wings and green eyes with small splotches of bright greenish-yellow around the thorax.
8. Hispid Cotton Rat
Owl pellets (owls regurgitate pellets of what they can't digest of their food) containing remains of the hispid cotton rat were found multiple times within Iowa, leading some to believe that they may have lived in the state for a while, but only very recently was a live one documented. This rodent, found as far south as Peru and Colombia, has slowly taken over more and more land to the north for the past 50 to 100 years, finally reaching Iowa. They prefer grassy areas, especially tallgrass prairies, meadows, and old fields where they build above-ground nests of dried grasses and other plant material. They are primarily nocturnal in their food gathering and tend not to store food, but clipped vegetation can often be found along the runways they wear into the soil (likely for nest building). Their coloring is strikingly similar to the peccary (javelina), giving them the nickname javelina rat. Increasing populations of the hispid cotton rat are expected in Iowa’s future.
9. Nine-banded Armadillo
Armadillos seen within Iowa have often been on the side of the road. However, a few of these armored mammals might call Iowa home with a possibility that they are expanding their range. They could also be getting picked up with fruit or other truckloads and trainloads of food and then end up on the road. “We used to believe that most of them were coming in on trucks, but I think the rate we’re seeing now would lead us to believe it’s more than just that,” says Ensminger. When startled, armadillos jump 3 to 4 feet in the air, making them collide with the underside of cars. They cannot survive a harsh winter in Iowa, but they are doing well further and further north in Missouri. “Uncovered skin in northern climates is not a good deal. Neither is having a naked tail and ears. They do have fur, but not a lot so they would struggle,” says Ensminger. Before it went extinct, the Beautiful armadillo called parts of Iowa home 11,000 years ago. Armadillos eat up to 200 pounds of insects per year and prefer to live in heavily forested areas with thick brush and lots of cover.