On the Outer Banks, you’re likely to find some of the creatures that consider this region their home. The varied landscapes and mild climate creates a habitat that can support a vast array of animals. In addition to the fish, seagulls, and squirrels that you’ll notice moving about, there are other mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians that you may have never seen before in the wild, but can find here in the Outer Banks.
Countless vacationers to the Outer Banks take their four-wheel-drive vehicles onto the beaches at Corolla to see the horses that graze freely on the grasses by the sand. These horses are descendants of the Colonial Spanish Mustangs that arrived in the New World in the 1500s. However, over time, they have become feral as other horse species were introduced to the region. For their protection, the horses are separated from humans—it’s illegal to touch or come within 50 feet of them. The horses are predominately brown in color, but that shade varies from tan to a dark chocolate. To ensure a wild horse sighting, book a professional tour that guarantees to take you to a place where they are located. Don’t forget your camera!
Loggerhead Sea Turtles
Since the late 1970s this species of turtle (as well as other sea-dwelling turtles like the leatherback and green sea turtles) has been on the endangered species list. Found in oceans around the world excluding the Arctic, these reptiles can grow to be three feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Because they’re often caught in fishing nets and have had their breeding grounds destroyed, their numbers continue to dwindle despite conservation efforts. A surprising fact about loggerhead turtles is that they can swim up to 15 miles per hour along an ocean current.
A symbol of the National Audubon Society, these beautiful, large, shore birds with S-shaped necks and white plumage are found in marshes and along the shoreline. Like the brown pelican, this too was an endangered species due to the demand for its white feathers. However, this bird persevered and has ultimately made a comeback in population. The adults are monogamous, though a couple will live in trees among other birds of the same type including other egrets and herons. Their strong, pointed beaks allow them to break through crustacean shells and open shellfish.
Many different species of dolphin play and fish for their dinner off the North Carolina coastline. In fact, in this area there are at least nine different species of these cetaceans including the bottlenose, common, Atlantic spotted, short-snouted spinner, rough-toothed, and striped dolphins. Variable by species, most adults range in length from six to ten feet and weigh 200–300 lbs. However, the most commonly seen bottlenose dolphin can grow to be much larger. Dolphins travel in pods with just a few members, though scientists have witnessed as many as several hundred dolphins in one pod of varying species. They require large amounts of food to survive and can eat up to 30 lbs. of fish a day. Their skin is at least ten times thicker than that of a human, and to keep it sleek for easy movement through the water, dolphins regenerate a new outer layer every few hours. To figure out which species you’re seeing, pay attention to coloration, length of the snout, the crease between the snout and melon (forehead), and any distinguishing features like spots or raccoon-like masks. To get a better view of these beautiful animals, take a dolphin tour. Knowledgeable guides will take you to areas where they are often feeding and frolicking in the water. Then, visit Dolphins-World.com, an educational site, to identify the cetacean you saw.
A success story for conservationists, the brown pelican has surged in population after its species was nearly decimated in the 1970s. The brown pelican is different from its cousin pelicans in that it is the only one of its species to not have a predominately white body. (Other pelicans have colors on their wings that can be seen when they’re in flight.) This beautiful bird can hold three gallons of water in its pouch-like beak while it traps its prey. After a fish is caught, the pelican pours the water out and then swallows its dinner. Brown pelicans are often seen soaring just above the water in groups as they search for their next meal.
The Scotch Bonnet is a sea snail with a unique shell. To pay homage to the Scotsmen who settled the colony of North Carolina during the 1700s, the snail was named after the traditional tam o’ shanter (cap) that the shell resembles. It’s extremely difficult to find a fully intact shell along the shore due to their frail nature. The snails themselves prefer to feed on echinoderms including sea urchins and sand dollars. To perforate the shells of their prey, scotch bonnets emit a sulfuric acid that grants them access to their food.
Often found in the ocean when the summer sun has warmed the waters, these spineless life forms range from harmless to quite dangerous. The cannonball jelly is the most populous breed of this species and is often noticed by vacationers. To the great relief of swimmers, it has very little venom and no stinging tentacles. There are others that can be dangerous to swimmers, but aren’t as prevalent in the Outer Banks. Jellyfish are rather fun to watch and can be seen in the “Delicate Drifters” exhibit at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.
Across the Croatan Sound from Roanoke Island is the Alligator River National Preserve. In this wild area lives the endangered red wolf. It’s distinguishable from its more common cousin, the gray wolf, due to its smaller size and ruddy or brownish coat. Once abundant in population in much of the American southeast, the red wolf now solely resides in eastern North Carolina. Scientists have estimated that there are only about 55 wolves in the wild, however aggressive breeding programs have boosted numbers of wolves in captivity. Regardless, the red wolf is severely endangered and every precaution is being taken to preserve this species.