Field Guides

Carnivora of Missouri

Missouri is home to 13 species of carnivore ranging from the tiny least weasel, weighing a mere 2 ounces, to the 240 pound black bear (Hunter 2011, Reid 2006). Carnivore in the scientific sense of the word refers not simply to a species that eats meat, but to a species belonging to the order Carnivora. Species that fall under this classification share a common ancestor and a heritage of meat consumption (Hunter 2011). However, not all species of Carnivora are solely meat-eaters; the black bear’s diet, for instance, consists largely of nuts, berries, and other vegetation. The giant panda (not a Missouri species) feeds almost entirely on bamboo (Waggoner & Smith 1994). 

Carnivores are mammals, as the order Carnivora falls within the class Mammalia (Catalogue of Life 2015). More specifically, Carnivora are placental mammals — those mammals whose young are nurtured in the womb by the placenta (Waggoner & Smith 1994). Their strongest identifying characteristics include enlarged canine teeth, three pairs of incisors on both top and bottom jaws, and molars with a modified shape for meat-chewing. Carnivora are also territorial, marking the bounds of their territories with scent from either urine or scent glands. The skunk famously uses these scent glands for defensive purposes as well (Waggoner & Smith 1994).

Existing at the top of the food pyramid, Carnivora are relatively rare. Vast ecosystems are required to sustain populations of large- and medium-sized carnivores because of the large of amount of prey they must consume to survive (Hunter 2011). Therefore, conservation of the habitats of these species is very important to their future survival.

Each of the 13 Carnivora species that calls Missouri home is listed below. Size, color, distinctive features, behavior, and diet are described for each. Additional relevant information and resources are given for some. I hope this guide will help readers identify and understand species of Carnivora that they might come across in the Missouri wild. 

Bobcat Lynx rufus

Body length of the bobcat is about 2-3 ft., weight is anywhere from 11-40 lb. Most identifiable by its bobbed (short and stubby) tail, of which the upper part of the tip is white, and the lower part is black. Color of the bobcat’s back can vary between gray, brown, and reddish brown, while chest, belly, and inside of the legs are whitish with black spots. Back may be spotted or unspotted (Reid 2006). Bobcats are the only species of family Felidae, the taxonomic cat family, to whom the Missouri wilderness is home (Catalogue of Life 2015, Beringer 2012). Though Bobcats are primarily nocturnal, they are sometimes active during daylight as well. Able to swim and climb trees. Prey on rats and rodents, also on deer that are resting, birds and others. Its habitats include coniferous and deciduous forests, swamps, thickets, arid areas, and mountains. Not endangered in Missouri (Reid 2006).

Coyote Canis latrans

Length around 2-3 ft., weight 20-50 lb. Most identifiable by its large ears and long narrow snout. Grayish or pale orange-brown color, legs rusty color. The coyote’s tail is bushy and typically black on the tip. Domestic dogs will display a less bushy tail and shorter snout. Coyotes communicate long-range with high-pitched yips and loud howls, most often at night. Prey includes mammals, birds, and snakes, but the coyote also eats insects, fruit, berries, and vegetable matter. Sometimes hunts deer or elk in packs, most success in conditions of deep snow. Packs of 3-7 will defend an area up to 8 sq. mi, but they can live singly or in pairs as well(Reid 2006, Schwartz 2001). They are mostly nocturnal (Schwartz 2001).

Red Fox Vulpes vulpes

Length around 2 ft., weight 8-15 lb. Most identifiable by long bushy tail, orange-red color with black lower legs, and white tip of the tail. Body color may also vary, but the only other phase found in Missouri is the cross fox, which has a dark band down the back and across the shoulders. The red fox has black ears, a white belly, and long legs. A young red fox will be brown colored. They are easily distinguished from coyotes by their redder coat, smaller size, and longer tail (Schwartz 2001). Primarily active during night or twilight, but often hunts during day in the winter. Preys on rodents, rabbits, and birds. Also eats insects, fruit, and berries. Red foxes form long-term partnerships and defend a territory in pairs. However, they are most often seen alone. Red foxes may carry rabies (Reid 2006).

Common Gray Fox Urocyon cinereoargenteus

Length around 2 ft., weight 7-15 lb. Most identifiable by its relatively short legs, the gray grizzled fur on its back, and its bushy tail, which is black at the tip. Besides its back, the common gray fox is rusty orange colored with a white belly. By its shorter legs and black-tipped tail, it can be easily distinguished from the red fox, the only other species of fox found in Missouri. Active mostly during night or twilight. Feeds on small mammals in winter and fruits and insects in summer, and often forages in trees (Hunter 2011). May be seen alone or in pairs, found in deciduous forests (Reid 2006).

Black Bear Ursus americanus

Length 4-6 ft., weight 100-900 lb. Black in color, light brown snout. Profile of snout is straight or convex. When viewed from a distance, rump is highest point of silhouette. Within the state, they are found only in southern Missouri. Black bears are naturally active by day but may become nocturnal when living near human habitation. Able to gallop at up to 35 mph. Black bears are good climbers. They eat mostly nuts, berries, and vegetation. Also eat young mammals, birds’ eggs, dead animals, and insects. Black bears inhabit dens in dead trees or logs. Pregnant females hibernate. Commonly born in twins, black bears can typically live 12 to 15 years in the wild but have been know to live more than 30 years in captivity (Schwartz 2001). Typically black bears are shy and do not threaten humans (Reid 2006).

Northern Raccoon Procyon lotor

Body length 16-24 in., weight 5-33 lb. Most identifiable by its masked appearance: black on the snout and around the eyes, surrounded by white. Tail is relatively short and exhibits alternating bands of black and whitish or orange. Body color grayish, fur is grizzled and long. Actively mainly at night. Its gait has a distinctive bounce, and its back appears arched as it walks. Eats a vide variety of plants and other animals. It often hunts at water’s edge with its front two paws. The northern raccoon is usually solitary but it may sometimes share a large den with 20 others. Very common (Reid 2006).

Eastern Spotted Skunk Spilogale putorius

Body length 8-17 in., tail 5-11 in., weight 10-30 oz. Most identifiable by its black fur with white stripes or rows of white spots. Triangle of white between the eyes. Also noticeable by its small size among skunks. Tail is shortish, bushy, and black with white tip. The eastern spotted skunk is nocturnal and rarely seen due to its secretive behavior. Able climber but typically found on the ground. If an eastern spotted skunk feel threatened, it will run toward the perceived threat, turn around and face its rear to the attacker while standing on front two legs. Will proceed to spray the attacker with secretions from its anal glands if provocation continues. Feeds on small mammals, birds, insects, dead animals, and sometimes plants. Becoming less abundant in Missouri (Reid 2006).

Striped Skunk Mephitis mephitis

Body length 12-20 in., tail 9-14 in., weight 2-11 lb. Black and white markings, white stripe down center of face. Identifiable by two wide white stripes extending from head to sides of the rump. May be heard rummaging or moving through leaf litter. While omnivorous, it feeds primarily on insects (Schwartz 2001). Will spray when threatened. Mostly active at night. One is most likely to see a striped skunk at dusk. Common in Missouri (Reid 2006).

Least Weasel Mustela nivalis

About 5-7 in. in length with about an inch-long tail, weight 1-2 oz. Known as the smallest member of the order Carnivora, it is most identifiable by its tiny size, long body, short tail. Coat changes color with the seasons, especially in more northern parts of Missouri. Summer coat is brown with white belly, winter coat is all white or off-white, with just few black hair at the tip of the tail. Easily distinguishable from the long-tailed weasel by its smaller size and shorter tail length. Preys on voles and mice. The least weasel narrows its body in pursuit of prey through small holes or burrows (Reid 2006). It is able to squeeze itself through a hole as small as a wedding ring (Hunter 2011). The least weasel’s habitat consists mostly of open areas and sometimes forests. It is generally uncommon, and within the state, found only in northern Missouri (Reid 2006).

Long-Tailed Weasel Mustela frenata

Body length about 7-11 in., tail 3-6 in., weight 3-10 oz. (males larger than females). Identifiable by its largeness among weasels and its long tail. Brown back with whitish belly, lighter colored in winter (especially in more northern parts of Missouri). The long-tailed weasel while galloping will be observed with its back arched and tail up. Prey includes a variety of small and medium sized mammals, as well as a variety of non-Mammalia prey. They are exclusively carnivores and rarely even eat carrion (Schwartz 2001). Generally uncommon (Reid 2006).

American Mink Mustela vison

Body length 12-16 in., tail 6-8 in., weight about 1-2 lb. Colored dark brown with white patches on chin, throat, and chest. The American mink’s tail displays a dark tip. Distinguishable from a weasel by its larger size and stouter proportions (Schwartz 2001). Distinguishable from an American marten in that the marten features a pale throat and bushy tail. The American mink hunts mainly in water during the summer and on land in the winter. Prey includes frogs, birds, and small mammals. Habitat is along streams, ponds, swamps, and marshes. Is known for secreting a particularly obnoxious odor from their anal glands (Schwartz 2001). Common in these areas (Reid 2006).

American Badger Taxidea taxus

Body length around 2 ft., tail 4-6 in., weight 11-26 lb. The American badger is stout-bodied and has very short legs. Most identifiable by its broad, flat shape and white stripe on the head. Black spot in front of each ear and black muzzle. Active mostly at night. Builds burrows for itself and its young. Burrow entrances can be recognized by their low oval shape and width of 8-12 in. Males live solitarily and defend home ranges of approximately 2.5 square miles (Schwartz). The American badger primarily feeds on rodents, which it digs up. Habitat is open areas, such as plains or alpine meadows. Not endangered in Missouri, though it cannot be found in southeast Missouri (Reid 2006).

Northern River Otter Lontra canadensis

Body length 26-31 in., tail 12-20 in., weight 10-24 lb. The northern river otter is semi-aquatic. It has short legs, a wide tail that narrows at the tip, and webbed feet, which are a distinguishing characteristic. Colored brown with a silver belly. Easily distinguished from a beaver, which has a flat tail with scales. Most active at twilight. Swims with its head above surface of the water. Moves on land by both galloping and sliding. Primarily feeds on fish, frogs, crayfish, and shellfish. Piles of shells, claws, or fish scales can indicate the presence of a northern river otter. Found in lakes, rivers, streams, and swamps of southeastern Missouri. Has also been reintroduced in central and northern Missouri as part of protection efforts (Reid 2006).

Field Guide


Beringer, Jeff. “Living with Large Carnivores.” Missouri Department of Conservation. Conservation Commission of Missouri, 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.

“Browse Taxonomic Tree.” Catalogue of Life. 1 Sept. 2015. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.

Hunter, Luke, 2011, Carnivores of the World

“Mountain Lions in the State of Missouri.” Mountain Lion Foundation. Mountain Lion Foundation, 22 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Reid, Fiona A., 2006, A Field Guide to Mammals of North America, Fourth Edition

Schwartz, Charles Walsh., and Elizabeth Reeder. Schwartz. The Wild Mammals of Missouri. 2nd ed. Columbia: U of Missouri, 2001. Print.

Waggoner, Ben, and Dave Smith. “Carnivora: Life History & Ecology.” Life History and Ecology of the Carnivora. University of California, 5 Dec. 1994. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.