World’s Best Mammals. And the winners are ….

A month or so ago I ran a straw poll asking people what their “Ten best mammals” were, from a mammal watching point of view.

The response was impressive. Forty people sent in lists (some wrote me direct) – and the blog post was the most popular ever, at least in terms of comments.  A big thanks to all those who posted, especially those who posted for the first time.

I have compiled the results as best I can, occasionally lumping similar species together (eg Manatees and Dugongs; or Javan and Sumatran Rhinos), in a fairly haphazard way, but trying to stay true to what I think most people’s intentions were. I also turned a blind eye to the significant proportion of people who couldn’t keep to 10 mammals … so this wasn’t one person one vote!  I gave a point to a species each time it appeared in a top 10 list.. but didn’t give more votes to a first placed species than a 10th placed.

Around 500 votes were cast, but they only covered 90 species (and only 30 of those received just one vote). This shows an impressive amount of overlap in our thinking. And a disappointing lack of rodents, shrews and bats .. as well as anything else smaller than a Platypus.

So with those many qualifications, here is a totally unscientific and unrepresentative Top 21 Mammals. And I have to say the list looks pretty good to me.  I haven’t seen three of these: Okapi; Javan or Sumatran Rhino; and Aye Aye.  Speaking of that, next week I will ask what people’s current 10 most wanted species are.

The 21 Best Mammals

Tiger (17 votes)
Okapi (16 votes)
Giant Panda (15 votes)
Snow Leopard (13 votes)
Gorilla (13 votes)
African Wild Dog (12 votes)
Blue whale (12 votes)
Platypus (11 votes)
Narwhal (11 votes)
Mainland or Sunda Clouded Leopard (9 votes)
Javan or Sumatran Rhino (9 votes)
Giant Pangolin (8 votes)
Polar Bear (8 votes)
Aardvark (7 votes)
Malayan Tapir (7 votes)
Wolverine (7 votes)
Wolf (7 votes)
Red Panda (6 votes)
Jaguar (6 votes)
Aye Aye (6 votes)
Dugong/Manatee (6 votes)




  • kittykat23uk

    Well I have seen seven on that list. Two more in their native country but in captivity. 🙂

  • Vladimir Dinets

    I’m still missing giant pangolin 🙁

  • Don Roberson

    I’ve really enjoyed following this thread as I developed a “Top 50” list some 20 years ago
    Nine of the top 13 in this poll are in my top 13 (and 7 in the Top 10). It has been a blast structuring trips to search for many of these, of which I’ve managed 9 out of these 21 (and spent a week on serious trips to see 2 others but dipped). Thanks, Jon, for putting this fun project together. Don

  • Steve Linsley

    Fascinating. All of them occur in the Old World except jaguar…..

  • Jon hall

    Good point. And Platypus though

  • Don Roberson

    Well, 7 of them — a third — also occur in the New World, as 6 are found essentially worldwide, either in the arctic or the oceans

  • Morgan

    I have seen Gray Wolf and West Indian Manatee, of critters on this list.

    Although I call foul on lumping dugongs and manatees together…they are not even the same family ! 😛

  • Eran Tomer

    Thank you, Jon, for the interesting summary. Some thoughts in no particular order:

    * Only 9 of 29 mammalian orders – or 31% – are represented. 69% of orders – entire evolutionary branches – are excluded. That’s more than two-thirds.

    * 10 of the species are carnivores, a mass over-representation. Maybe herbivores would do better if they started eating tofu, veggie burgers and other soy-based meat substitutes.

    * It’s odd to see humans voting the Tiger into first place. Rather like mice voting for cats. Surely tigers would be delighted to meet mammal-watchers too. You know, for lunch…

    * The preponderance of large, strong animals is striking. Size matters. Big felines made it, smaller ones didn’t. Gorilla made it, Chimp & Bonobo didn’t. Blue Whale yes, smaller big whales no. Giant Pangolin yes, other pangolins no. Can’t resist a socio-political comment: culture always advocates siding with the underdog, not the mean, strong bullies. But when it comes to animals it’s the muscular “big guys” – especially the killers – that seem to appeal most.

    * The trend applies to rarity too. Large, powerful animals apparently take precedence over smaller, highly unique animals that are very difficult to see.

    * Tiger, Giant Panda, Gorilla, Polar Bear and Wolf made top places despite being popular, endlessly commercialized, “trademark” animals. Yet this also describes elephants, Lion and Giraffe, which didn’t make it. The formers are more difficult to see, but not greatly so. Interesting.

    * Surprisingly, and perhaps disappointedly, not a single ungulate made it. Not even the rarest, or scarcely-known, or the prettiest, or the most majestic ones. Cows and sheep and goats (and deer and antelopes) just don’t seem to impress people greatly, no matter how glorified. Teeth yes, horns no. Can do, as long as both stay far from our booties.

    * Along the same lines – cute animals are also missing (save maybe Red & Giant Pandas). Apparently no degree of loveliness propels an animal to the top. Humans like big & strong. This is strange because cuteness is one of mammals’ biggest advantages over other animals. Invertebrates, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians can be unique, specialized, very large or terrifyingly carnivorous, and sometimes endearing, but mammals win the cuteness contest hands-down. This seems undervalued, what a pity. How can folks resist some of these little furries ?

    * That the Aye-aye (aye) received 6 “ayes” bulls-eye is Nay-nay believable. Sure it’s unique and all, and it’s a Yes-yes-animal, but it looks like an opossum that fell into a washing machine. You know, one of those animals that sleeps with its fur on and never irons it. It also has a perennially-shocked stare, as if caught naked or doing something Momma told it not to. Maybe it was caught with its finger in the grub jar. Of course, such orange eyes would be expected on anyone staying up all night drumming on trees – and driving the neighbors mad. I think I know why it’s endangered… Aye-aye, sir.

    * Only four of the 21 mammals are aquatic. Not bad considering that most mammals are terrestrial, but some aquatic species are strangely absent despite their extraordinary appeal. E.g. Walrus, Sperm Whale, some beaked whales. And possibly Ribbon and Southern Elephant seals.

    * As others have noted, new world mammals are majorly underrepresented despite being highly unique – anteaters, sloths, armadillos, other oddities like Mara and Guanaco. They aren’t particularly easy to see either. Also, Malayan Tapir made it while South American tapirs didn’t. I wonder what’s behind the old world bias.

    * Malayan Tapir seems out of place. Product designers, take note – sometimes adding just a simple white stripe can make all the difference. Clouded Leopards and Red Panda also seem odd among the others listed.

    * No marsupials made the list despite their uniqueness and disproportionate number of little-known species. No Koala, tree kangaroos or many other specialized animals. Many marsupials are also gravely threatened and difficult to see, but that didn’t propel them into the top 21. This seems strange. However, their endangerment is self-explanatory. Australia started out as a penal colony so the introduction of pick-pockets quickly decimated marsupial populations.

    * The Platypus made it, the echidnas didn’t. Is it because there are several species of echidna vs. only one Platypus ? Or echidnas’ superficial resemblance to hedgehogs ? But long-beaked echidnas are highly unique structurally. Their absence vs. the Platypus seems strange.

    * Many other unique, specialized mammals also didn’t make it – e.g. Bactrian Camel, Pygmy Hippo, colugos, solenodons, certain bats and numerous others. However, Aardvark, Giant Pangolin and sirenians are winners. It seems that size really does matter. So does publicity – the lesser-known species didn’t receive much support.

    * It’s good to see the Okapi near the top. This incredible creature receives far less attention than it deserves. But just wait until someone discovers that it actually isn’t a valid species at all, but a genetically funky giraffe-zebra hybrid.

    Best regards,

    – Eran Tomer
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA

    • tomeslice

      Well, I just learned that platypus isn’t a marsupial (embarrassing?)

      I would say that of all places, on THIS blog there are no mammals that get “no publicity”. Colugos are a (very) frequent favorite on people’s trip reports to Borneo, and the Pygmy Hippo won a special edition coverage and a recent hype, after Jon’s, Charles’s, and the Telfers’ trip reports with that “high on life” video. Not to mention the attention given to bats and rodents by the likes of Jon, Vladimir and Venkat.

      Aardvark and Pangolin just win the “world’s weirdest” category, and if you had to pick only 1 pangolin I guess you’d go with the largest and the rarest (in fact, 1 of only 2 species that haven’t ended up on a trip repot yet). Aardvark is not only super weird and large, it also carries the reputation for being notoriously hard to find. Everyone remembers the days it was nearly impossible to see it, before Marrick Safaris came along.
      —On that note I would like to say that Manyara Ranch once had a reputation for finding them, as did Kisimi Ngeda, (both in Tanzania’s Northern circuit) but they both kind of neglected this feature of finding “rarer” nocturnal animals, which is too bad.

      And the one other thing – who can argue that tigers are fucking adorable?? 😉 As are baby gorillas and wolverines.

      • Charles Foley

        Hi Tomer,

        Just to let you know that Aardvarks now feature regularly at the night hide at Kisima Ngeda. And I’m working on getting a Giant Pangolin study going. I’ll let you know when I do….!

    • Charles Foley

      Had to laugh at your description of the Aye Aye. It does look as if that long finger has been stuck into a power outlet, doesn’t it?

  • Craig

    Great list. I’ve only seen five on the list in the wild; gorilla, platypus, dugong, jaguar and wolf. (Why is “gorilla generic”, but tapir is specifically “Malayan” ? Why not just “tapir’).
    I also find it a bit odd that things like clouded leopard and red panda make the list. Very “boutique”.
    Also, we would all love to see okapi in the wild, but how the hell is that possible ? Is it safe in DRC at present? (memories of hearing that the okapi reserve was attacked in 2012, with six people and 13 okapis killed).
    Craig (Melbourne, Australia).

    • tomeslice

      I think the gorillas are more interchangable as far as “which one looks the coolest”

      The 3 American tapirs are also somewhat interchangable, but the Malayan one stands out.

      It’s almost like (but yet still far from) saying “big cat”.

      Okapi is currently not seeable unless you don’t mind taking the chance of dying (not recommended).
      The Sumatran Rhino is also pretty much unseeable unless you’re extremely mega lucky, but at least people can visit reserves where it exists so it seems less “unfair” to put it on the list…

    • Jon Hall

      Hi Craig. Just to clarify one of my choices when compiling data. I think that a few people put “gorilla” and one or two put “mountain gorilla” so I lumped all these as Gorilla. I think (but might be wrong) that all Tapir votes were for Malayan.

  • kittykat23uk

    I ran a survey on Safaritalk a few years ago, asking what mammal people most want to see in the wild:

  • tomeslice

    Solid list, Jon!!

    It makes me feel like a loser… (I’ve only seen a quarter of these animals so far)

    • Jon Hall

      Age adjusted you are doing pretty well Tomer! I think I had only seen 5 of them before I turned 30

  • Venkat Sankar

    A pretty cool list though have to admit a bit sad not to see any bats on there!! Also only seen 5 of these, but thankfully I have a lot of time to catch up 🙂

  • samuel marlin

    Excellent post Jon and nice job to finalize such a list !
    Glad to see that my wife and I already saw 10 of these 21 most wanted mammals and there are a few that we would really love to see in the near future.
    That is right that once again big cats / dogs take a big portion of what most people want to see in the wild.
    Such king of thread makes me like this website more and more….

  • Vladimir Dinets

    Jon: Yes, I saw an okapi in 2005. Got very lucky. BTW, there are proposals to reintroduce it to Semiliki Valley in Uganda.

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