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20 Specialist Species Examples in North America

It’s impossible to describe the number of possible adaptations animals can have to their environment. Some species spend their entire lives relying on a single plant. Others can roam around the globe with ease. Whatever its habits, every organism has a role to play in nature. Even if a specialist’s role seems small, it contributes hard-to-spot services to the environment. 

Today, we’ll discuss 20 species of animals and plants that are specialists. Continue reading to learn about the definition and importance of a specialist, as well as 20 examples.  

First, let’s learn about what a specialist species is. 

What is a specialist species? 

Specialist species can be any organism – plant, animal, or fungi – that occupies a specific niche in its environment. They have difficulty adapting to change and usually eat just one or two types of food. Many endangered species are specialist species because they are usually rare and susceptible to change. 

Specialist species are often some of the most rare species in the ecosystem. They may have unusual traits that other organisms don’t have. They might exhibit weird habits or behaviors too. 

These plants, animals, and fungi are less resilient than other organisms. They don’t have a backup plan to survive if the primary way they live, eat, and reproduce is interrupted. This makes them more vulnerable to changes in their environment. 

Why are specialist species important? 

Specialist species are crucial to the world because they increase biodiversity in an environment. Biodiversity is a measure of how much complexity an ecosystem contains.

Environments with higher biodiversity numbers are healthier, better able to bounce back after natural disasters, and aesthetically more pleasing than low-biodiversity environments. 

Specialist organisms indicate the health of an ecosystem. Many are vulnerable to disturbance. Things like human development and agriculture are two examples of environmental interaction that can upset and disrupt specialist species.

When specialists disappear, the probability that there is some kind of environmental disturbance like pollution or natural resource use goes up. 

20 Specialist Species examples in North America 

1. Saguaro Cactus

Saguaro cactus
Saguaro cactus | image by docentjoyce via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Carnegiea gigantea

This tall and imposing cactus is the trademark icon of the deserts of the Southwestern United states. A single cactus can live over 150 years long and grow 50 feet tall! They are considered specialists because of their small habitat range and their adaptations to the hot, dry conditions of southern Arizona

Some saguaros grow arms, but others don’t. When they bloom, flowers are pollinated by honeybees, hummingbirds, and bats. Humans and animals have eaten the bright red fruits for thousands of years. 

2. Canada Lynx

Canada lynx
Canada lynx | Image by Genevieve Desilets from Pixabay

Scientific name: Lynx canadensis

This medium-sized cat is a fearsome predator in northern New England and Canada. It relies on the snowshoe hare for most of its caloric intake. This relationship leads to drastic decreases in the population of lynxes when hares die off and population booms when hares are plentiful. 

The lynx cuts a recognizable figure thanks to its bobtail, large paws that act like snowshoes, and black-tipped ears. 

3. Pitcher Plant

Sarracenia flowers
Sarracenia flowers | image by Aaron Carlson via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Sarracenia sp. 

Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants native to North America. The Sarracenia genus lives in most of central and southern Canada, the Atlantic coasts and wetlands, and the wetlands in the southeastern United States.

They have adapted to acidic soils with low mineral content, but rely on capturing insects to absorb enough nutrients to survive. Pitcher plants are specialist because they are carnivorous and because they require frequent wildfires to maintain their habitat’s integrity. 

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4. Pronghorn

Pronghorn Antelope running
Pronghorn antelope running | image by Larry Lamsa via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Antilocapra americana 

Pronghorns are a species of herbivorous mammals that live in western North America. They are the fastest land mammal on the continent, and can run up to 55 miles per hour.

Both male and female pronghorns have horns, which are between 6 and 10 inches long. They have tan, black, and white markings on their bodies. 

Pronghorns are classified as specialists because they developed the ability to run so fast in order to evade the extinct American cheetah. 

5. Smith’s Blue Butterfly

Smith’s blue butterfly
Smith’s blue butterfly | image by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Euphilotes enoptes smithi

The Smith’s blue butterfly is a small blue butterfly that lives within an 80-mile range along California’s central coast. It’s an endangered specialist species that lives only on two species of buckwheat – coastal and sea cliff – that live along high-disturbance areas of the dunes and cliffs of the Pacific Coast. They spend most of their lives in a pupal form around buckwheat.

When they hatch into butterflies, they live for about a week. They can be seen from the roadside along the Pacific Coast highway from northern San Luis Obispo county north into Monterey county and southern Santa Cruz. 

6. Black-footed Ferret

Black-footed ferret
Black-footed ferret

Scientific name: Mustela nigripes

Black-footed ferrets are popular small carnivores native to the Great Plains of the central United States and southern Canada. They lived as far south as central Texas and as far west as Phoenix.

Over 90% of the population was killed off after most of the prairie dogs were killed off in the Great Plains. These specialists are vulnerable to diseases and predation, such as sylvatic plague. 

7. Red Crossbill

Red crossbill
Red crossbill

Scientific name: Loxia curvirostra

The red crossbill is a songbird that lives in the spruce forests of northern North America. This finch has a special adaptation to make it easier to eat the seeds from cones: its upper and lower bills are crossed over in an intentional misalignment.

This allows them to pop open the bark on the edges of cones and get at the seeds. Almost all of this bird’s diet consists of conifer seeds, so its population and location throughout the year shifts as the production of spruce trees ebbs and flows.  

8. Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby throated hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird | image by Kevin Winn via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Scientific name: Archilochus colubris 

The ruby-throated hummingbird is an extremely-specialized species of bird. Like all hummingbirds, they have the ability to fly backwards, hover, and conduct aerial acrobatics that other birds can’t do. They also have long bills with dextrous tongues to lap nectar out of flowers.

Luckily, ruby-throated hummingbirds have adapted well to human infrastructure and suburban development. They are a charismatic species that garners lots of support from bird enthusiasts. 

9. Florida Manatee

Florida manatee
Florida manatee | image by James St. John via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Trichechus manatus latirostris

The Florida manatee is one of two subspecies of the North American manatee. It lives along the coasts of the southeastern United States, the Gulf Coast, and parts of the Caribbean. 

Scientists consider them specialists because they subsist solely on the aquatic grasses that grow in the shallows by the coasts. They eat seagrass, which is limited in places with high development. As a result, conservationists have created coastal preserves with intentional seagrass plantings.   

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10. California Condor

California condor perching
California condor perching | image by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientific name: Gymnogyps californianus 

The California condor is one of two large vulture species that live in the Western Hemisphere. They’re critically endangered but the species has made major recovery efforts in the last twenty years. 

They now live in Southern California. Scientists consider them specialists because they lived solely along the Pacific Coast in the rocky crags at the top of mountains before they suffered from DDT poisoning. They eat carrion of large livestock and roadkill.    

11. Key Deer

Key Deer
Key Deer | image by Melissa McMasters via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Odocoileus virginianus clavium

You’ll have the opportunity to see a key deer if you visit Big Pine Key in Florida. This deer lives solely in the Florida Keys island chain, where it dines on vegetation. It swims between the islets and islands, but the species’ home base is Big Pine Key. 

The habitat they dwell in on the islands include everything from wetlands to forests to pine rocklands. What limits their habitation is freshwater, which is most reliably found on Big Pine Key.   

12. Gopher Tortoise

Gopher Tortoise
A gopher Tortoise moving out

Scientific name: Gopherus polyphemus

Gopher tortoises are some of the most important animals in the longleaf pine ecosystem of the Southeastern United States. Along with being keystone species, gopher tortoises are also specialists. Their trademark trait is digging large burrows that other animals use after the tortoises vacate them. 

Unfortunately, gopher tortoises are vulnerable to habitat disturbances. Major destruction of the longleaf pine ecosystem by forestry efforts has resulted in fragmented habitat. Since gopher tortoises are slow-moving, mortality on roads is a major issue.

They are long-lived and can take about 20 years before they’re ready to reproduce. As a result, breeding programs with gopher tortoises can take a long time before results are visible. 

13. Island Fox 

Island fox by Caleb Putnam
Island fox by Caleb Putnam

Scientific name: Urocyon littoralis 

Six islands off the coast of southern California are home to the island fox. The Channel Islands chain is made up of eight islands, six of which are inhabited by the small carnivore.

Like many island-dwelling animals, it has adapted to life without many large predators. They are smaller than mainland foxes, have little fear of humans, and don’t have immune systems adapted to off-island diseases. 

Current conservation measures struggle to balance the needs of the island foxes with the needs of the golden eagle, a large raptor that also inhabits the area, as well as the San Clemente Island loggerhead shrike, a predatory songbird.  

14. Polar Bear

Polar Bear
Polar Bear | image by 358611 from Pixabay

Scientific name: Ursus maritimus 

The Polar bears are the largest of the three bears native to North America. They live in the upper reaches of Canada and the southern Arctic. Polar bears can be over 15 feet tall when they stand on their hind legs and weigh over 1000 pounds. 

They’re specialists because they rely heavily on ice pack to catch their favorite food, seals. In recent years, attention on polar bears has increased. Efforts to conserve everyone’s favorite bear include radio tracking the bears and measuring patterns in sea ice melt. 

15. Frosted Flatwoods Salamander

Frosted flatwoods salamander
Frosted flatwoods salamander | image by U.S. Geological Survey via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Ambystoma cingulatum

Frosted flatwoods salamanders are just as colorful as their name suggests. An adult salamander is black with crackled silver marbling all over its body. They rely on small pools and ponds in the at-risk longleaf pine ecosystem common in coastal plains Georgia, South Carolina, and northern Florida. 

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This salamander relies on crawfish dens to hide. It hunts for worms and other invertebrates by secreting itself in a tunnel, then ambushing prey once it passes by. While current efforts to recover the species are underway, most populations are extremely fragmented because they are interspersed between commercial pine plantations. 

16. Mississippi Sandhill Crane

Mississippi sandhill crane
Mississippi sandhill crane | image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region via Flickr

Scientific name: Grus canadensis pulla 

The charismatic Mississippi sandhill crane is a specialist in its habitat: the wet pine savanna. It once lived across the coastal plains of the southeast, but urban development and wetland-draining efforts decreased their numbers dramatically to 35 in the 1970s. 

These birds have broad diets, but live only in the state of Mississippi. If they don’t have access to a water-abundant habitat with intermittent pine trees and grasses, they can’t survive. 

17. Spring Beauty Mining Bee

Spring beauty mining bee
Spring beauty mining bee | image by Judy Gallagher via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Andrena erigeniae 

This bee is a specialist species among different types of bees. Unlike most bees that can live off of flowers from weeds and common plants, the spring beauty mining bee cannot live on anything but the pollen and nectar of the Virginia spring beauty flower. The flower lives in the eastern United States and two provinces of eastern Canada. 

Spring beauty mining bees are suffering today because their primary food source, spring beauty, is being crowded out by lesser celandine. 

18. Kemp’s Ridley Turtle

Kemp’s ridley turtle
Kemp’s ridley turtle | image by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Lepidochelys kempii 

Kemp’s Ridley turtle is not a specialist because of its diet – it eats jellyfish, mollusks, algae, fish, and sea urchins like other sea turtles. It’s a specialist because of the location females return to when they lay their eggs. Almost every female turtle returns to a Mexican beach called Rancho Nuevo, where they nest cooperatively. 

Unfortunately, the sea turtles are extremely endangered because of 20th century egg harvesting and accidentally getting caught in nets. Current conservation efforts are underway, but only time will tell if the sea turtle will survive. 

19. Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit

Columbia basin pygmy rabbit
Columbia basin pygmy rabbit | image by H. Ulmscheider (BLM) and R. Dixon (IDFG) via Wikimedia Commons

Scientific name: Brachylagus idahoensis 

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is a geographically-isolated specialist species that lives only in Washington State’s Columbia Basin. They have been vulnerable to risks of endangerment because they rely solely on wild sagebrush. If the number of sagebrush plants decreases, so do the rabbits. 

Current conservation efforts are underway to save the species, but it’s’ unclear what caused the decline in the first place. Conservationists believe it is a combination of fragmented habitat and livestock grazing. Increasing numbers of livestock led to the disintegration of the sagebrush habitat that the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit needs to survive. 

20. Attwater’s Prairie Chicken

Attwater’s prairie chicken
Attwater’s prairie chicken | image by Lavendowski, George via Wikimedia Commons

Scientific name: Tympanuchus cupido attwateri

The colorful Attwater’s prairie chicken is a member of the order Galliformes and a relative of the domestic chicken. Before it was endangered, it lived in the coastal grasslands of Southern Texas and Louisiana.

Habitat destruction, not a limited diet, has been the cause of this species’ decline. Most of the grasslands that supported a million prairie chickens in 1900 have now been taken over by invasive trees and plants.