Planet Earth teems with life. Animals thrive in tropical jungles as well as the frigid Arctic climate. Their adaptations make them good at surviving the extremes of temperature and weather. Some animals’ adaptations are extremely specific to where they live. If they move elsewhere, they can’t survive. Others have general adaptations to multiple kinds of environments. These animals are known as generalist species.
They aren’t limited by one habitat zone or a single food source. Instead, they adapt a little bit to many biomes and ecosystems so they can bounce around bigger territories.
Before we list generalist animals, let’s discuss what a generalist species is and why it’s so important.
What is a Generalist Species?
Generalist species are animals or plants that can thrive in many types of habitats. They adapt to different temperatures, climates, latitudes, and diets. A single generalist species may live on multiple continents. Many are successful at adapting to human development.
When you visit a new place, you’re most likely to see a generalist species. They are some of the most adaptable types of organisms. They thrive where other species cannot.
Instead of being dedicated to a single ecological niche, they harvest resources from many different niches. This gives them the flexibility to live in environments that are very different from one another.
Generalist species are least likely to go extinct. Compared to specialist species, which have unique adaptations for a single niche, generalists are more resilient. If one food source is removed from their environment, they can use another. Humans occasionally consider generalist species pests.
Why are Generalist Species Important?
Generalist species are important because they support all facets of an ecosystem. They are resilient and an indicator of the disturbance level of an ecosystem. More disturbed ecosystems often harbor more generalists than specialists because the generalists can adapt to change, while specialists can’t.
Many generalist species are mesopredators, meaning they hold an intermediate place on the food chain. Generalists like coyotes and raccoons are prey to large predators like bears and mountain lions. They support large predator populations too.
21 Generalist Species Examples in North America
Generalist species live throughout the North American continent. In this list, you’ll learn about 21 species of animals that are successful throughout the continent. Each description includes facts about the animal and what helps it survive in diverse conditions.
1. Common Racoon
Scientific name: Procyon lotor
The common racoon is an adaptable omnivore that lives primarily in temperate forests. Its range has increased, however, to the coastlines of the eastern United States, mountains, and cities.
They take advantage of trash piles and dumps where they look for refuse. In the wild, their diets consist of small mammals, birds’ eggs, and plants. Submerging their sensitive hands under the running water of a stream helps them
2. Brown Rat
Scientific name: Rattus norvegicus
Brown rats are not native to the western hemisphere, but they have been established residents of North America for hundreds of years. These rodents are small, brown-gray, and have bare tails and ears.
Their astounding level of adaptability is due to their ability to swim, eat almost any organic substance, and gnaw hiding places in human-built structures. They are considered pests and breed prolifically.
3. House Mouse
Scientific name: Mus musculus
Mice are some of the most adaptable creatures on the planet Earth. Distinguish them from rats by way of their smaller size.
They forage for plant materials like seeds as well as small insects at night. In the house mouse’s case, it is more commonly found in urban areas and suburban dwellings than it is in the wild.
4. Barn Owl
Scientific name: Tyto alba
The Barn owls are extremely adapted to hunting small animals at night. They earn a spot on the generalist species list because they use the same hunting method to pursue a variety of small prey.
They also have adapted to human development; they were known to live in barns and rural outbuildings. Unlike rats and mice, their presence was encouraged because they removed pests like mice, rats, frogs, and even small birds.
5. Domestic Cat
Scientific name: Felis catus
The domestic cat is one of the most successful small carnivores in the world. Scientists believe the species originated in Asia and the Middle East, where it was domesticated.
Now its range extends around the world thanks to its relationship with humans. Cats are carnivores that eat small rodents, lizards, amphibians, and birds. Their ability to compete with resident predators has led to efforts to reduce cat populations, especially feral colonies.
Scientific name: Musca domestica
The ever-present housefly is annoying and oh-so-common during the warm months of the year in North America. They are generalist species that consume anything they can slurp up with their proboscis.
Houseflies consider rotting meat and unattended food equally delicious. Most people consider them pests. They reproduce rapidly and congregate in unclean areas.
Scientific name: Corvus brachyrhynchos
Crows are inhabitants of environments around the world. They live in deserts, swamps, forests, grasslands, and cities. Canada hosts the birds during the spring and summer and they live year-round in the United States.
Due to their high intelligence, they adapt well to human cities and development. Crows are trainable and known to use tools to obtain food and water.
8. Common Raven
Scientific name: Corvus corax
The common raven is native to the northern reaches of North America as well as the western half of the United States. It is a large black bird with a strong beak and a croaky, metallic call.
They mate for life and often forage for food in dumpsters and near human settlements. One reason they have been so successful in such a large habitat range is that they are omnivorous. They’ll eat insects, garbage, and small rodents and lizards.
9. White-tailed Deer
Scientific name: Odocoileus virginianus
Almost everyone in North America can identify a white-tailed deer. It is ubiquitous in the deciduous forests of the east and common in the Great Plains, where it eats grasses, leaves, and stems.
Males grow large antlers each year, fight for access to females, and shed them in late winter. Populations cycle according to predators and hunting rates.
Scientific name: Lynx rufus
Bobcats are medium-sized cats native to the United States and southern Canada. They live in deserts, grasslands, forests, and swamps. While they thrive most in forests, they have even succeeded at nesting and raising kits in urban areas.
It’s common to see them lope through a backyard or come to drink at the edges of nature preserves or abandoned fields. Bobcats’ diet consists of rabbits, birds, small mammals, fish, and insects. They adapt to the food they can find; some even eat deer.
Scientific name: Canis latrans
The coyote is a medium-sized relative of the wolf. In the last century, it’s become more of a generalist species because of its ability to adapt to urban landscapes.
The pack animals roam through suburban neighborhoods and root through trash cans. Feral cats and unattended pets often end up being their prey.
12. American Cockroach
Scientific name: Periplaneta americana
American cockroaches are extremely adaptable beetles that thrive among human habitations. They were introduced to the United States in the 17th century where they rapidly established an ecological niche in dumps, trash piles, and the outdoors. Cockroaches are so successful at persisting because they eat things we wouldn’t normally call food: glue, old clothing, and books.
13. European Starling
Scientific name: Sturnus vulgaris
The European starling is not native to North America; it originates from Europe. Even so, it has survived and thrived in the 150-odd years since it was introduced to the continent in New York City.
European starlings have croaky metallic caws and iridescent plumes in spots on the black background. They travel in massive groups of hundreds and even thousands.
14. Atlantic Horseshoe Crab
Scientific name: Limulus polyphemus
You’ll spot horseshoe crabs along the coasts of North America, especially in Florida and the southeastern coasts. They are generalist arthropods that feast on worms, decaying fish, and mollusks.
It’s good that these crabs are abundant because they are extremely valuable for scientific purposes. Their blood contains a compound that helps test for diseases in medications.
Scientific name: Orcinus orca
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are predatory whales that live in the oceans around the North American continent. They eat a variety of prey types and adapt to almost any ocean range, except the coldest regions of the Arctic. Their diets include fish, seals, dolphins, and whale calves.
Orcas are very intelligent; pods of orcas are led by a matriarch who teaches her offspring and relatives where to find food, how to hunt, and in some cases, how to interact with humans.
16. Virginia Opossum
Scientific name: Didelphis virginiana
The Virginia opossum is one of the only marsupials native to North America. It has a pouch and raises its young by carrying them around on its back. They live along the Pacific coast and in the Eastern United States, as well as south into Mexico and Central America.
One reason behind the opossum’s success is its reliance on garbage, plant foods, small animals, and insects. They eat a wide range of foods which helps them survive in places with different habitats.
17. Eastern Cottontail
Scientific name: Sylvilagus floridanus
The eastern cottontail is the quintessential rabbit of the Eastern United States. It lives in open woodlands, grasslands, forests, swamps, wetlands, and suburban areas. They also live in the Pacific Northwest.
Eastern cottontails thrive on a diet of grass, twigs, bark, and other vegetation. Insects rarely make it onto the menu. Their only restriction on where they can successfully live is the presence of cover vegetation: to escape from predators, cottontails leap into hiding underneath shrubs.
18. Eastern Gray Squirrel
Scientific name: Sciurus carolinensis
Eastern gray squirrels are a common sight in the United States and parts of Canada. This adaptable rodent lives in forests, open woodlands, and anywhere with abundant trees. They eat a variety of vegetable and plant matter, especially nuts and acorns.
They have adapted well to the presence of people, and some are known to approach humans in parks and nature preserves for handouts of food. Squirrels are the bane of many backyard bird enthusiasts; they are clever problem solvers that constantly try to steal birdseed.
19. Channel Catfish
Scientific name: Ictalurus punctatus
Catching a channel catfish is easy if you live west of the Rocky Mountains. These freshwater catfish are common and well adapted to environments with plentiful sediment and available cavities.
They use their sensitive whiskers and the taste buds all over the outside of their bodies to swallow small fish and crustaceans whole. They’ll eat almost anything that moves – some catch insects on the surface of the water. They even consume small snakes!
20. Anopheles Mosquito
Scientific name: Anopheles sp.
The perennial spring and summer pest survives across most of North America. They rely on humid air and abundant supplies of standing water to reproduce and survive.
Unfortunately, the diet of the female is fresh blood from warm-blooded creatures. Mosquitos aren’t picky about where they get this blood from.
Any animal from a cow to a human is a tasty snack. In the eastern United States, the most common species is A. quadrimaculatus. In the west, it’s A. freeborni.
Scientific name: Gallus gallus domesticus
Chickens are extremely generalistic species of birds. Even before they were domesticated by humans, they successfully lived in multiple habitat types. Many people are surprised to discover that chickens are omnivores.
In the wild, they eat plants and insects. Some even consume small rodents like voles and mice. Others eat lizards. Feral chickens are common in regions with mild climates and warm winters, like coastal California and some parts of Florida.