7 ugly mammals in Iowa

Iowa is full of adorable mammals, so many that's its hard to choose which are the cutest, but the state also has so uggos. Our environmental education coordinator likes to call these mammals non-charismatic, because ugly tends to turn people off. Although perhaps not the most attractive, the following mammals do still have a important place in the environment and are quite interesting.

(Read "Nine adorable Iowa mammals")

Southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volaris)

flying squirrel on tree bark

You might not have known that Iowa has a flying squirrel resident, and you may think it's ugly or adorable --- maybe ugly cute is a good term. It is the smallest squirrel in the state --- even smaller than an eastern chipmunk as well --- and is rarely seen because of its nocturnal habits. Flying squirrels don't actually fly but have a sort of wingsuit of extra skin between their front and back legs that allows them to catch wind and glide between trees. They are able to glide up to 100 feet if they start with enough height.

Flying squirrels are a species of conservation concern in Iowa, possibly due to habitat loss, and they are only residents in wooded areas.

Plains pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius)

gopher on gray floor

Since Iowa's only gopher spends most of its life underground, its rarely seen. Many people don't like gophers because they use their large claws to dig underground, but they are a species of conservation concern because so many people trap or poison them. They are actually an important part of the prairie ecosystem, because the soil disturbance they cause in natural areas is a site for germination of seeds and helps plant diversity thrive.

Northern grasshopper mouse (Onychomys leucogaster)

mouse on brown background

Iowa's largest mouse is extremely solitary, known to attack and kill members of its own species. These mice are smaller than a chipmunk but larger than deer mice and live in short grass prairies, grasslands, pastures and even sand dunes.

Eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus)

mole in grass

Photo by Bert Cash, via Wikimedia Commons

Their almost non-existent eyes and large claws are what make these animals not-so-cute, but they are also built for living their entire lives below ground. Their large claws help them excavate tunnels in damp, loamy or sandy soils to find earthworms, beetles and ants to eat.

Although their scientific name includes aquaticus, these mammals do not swim. They live near the surface of the earth in the summer and below the frost line in the winter.

Masked shrew (Sorex cinereus)

shrew with long tail

You probably have never seen a masked shrew, because a full-grown adult is only the size of a human thumb, making it one of the world's smallest mammals. It has an extremely high metabolism, with a heart rate of up to 1,000 beats per minutes, and have to constantly search for beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and other invertebrates or small creatures in wooded and grassy habitats. Masked shrews can eat up to three times their body weight in one day.

Masked shrews live from Iowa to north of the Arctic Circle.

Northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda)

short-tailed shrew on fall grasses

Short-tailed shrews can kill prey up to twice their body weight --- they weigh about an ounce. They are one of the world's few venomous mammals, chewing the venom into their prey such as worms, millipedes, insects, snails or other small mammals. They may even use echolocation to orient themselves.

These shrews don't have many predators because of their strong odor.

Elliott's short-tailed shrew, which is the same genus, is also a venomous mammal.

Nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)

armadillo in fall background

Some mammals wander into the Iowa from neighboring states, and one of the occasional visitors is the nine-banded armadillo. Their native habitat is the southern United States, up to Missouri, but has been expanding even further north and has been seen in southern Iowa. People in Iowa have seen them, because they tend to jump 3-4 feet high when scared, drawing attention from passersby.

Armadillos probably will not be permanent state residents though, because they can't live in temperatures below 20 degrees for long periods of time.




  1. J mullins on September 25, 2018 at 10:59 pm

    20 year ago we did not see them at Lake of the Ozarks, now they are thick! Do not be leave that they can not survive cold weather—it gets plenty cold here. If you see dead one on the road , how many are in the woods?

    • Kiahn on April 28, 2019 at 5:41 pm