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North America’s most rare species in pictures

National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore has spent 20 years documenting North American species facing extinction. Sixty-nine of these animals and plants are showcased in a new book from National Geographic, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species (National Geographic Focal Point; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0575-0; $24; hardcover). Sartore is also global spokesperson for the United Nations International Year of...

National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore has spent 20 years documenting North American species facing extinction.

Sixty-nine of these animals and plants are showcased in a new book from National Geographic, RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species (National Geographic Focal Point; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0575-0; $24; hardcover).


Sartore is also global spokesperson for the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, which celebrates the variety of life on Earth.

I interviewed Sartore last week about his new book when he visited National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. We talked about his interest in North America’s endangered species, his technique of photographing animals against plain white or black background, his access to the rare and precious animals, and what we all can do in our daily lives to help endangered species. It’s not so much what we can do directly as what we can do to change our consumption and the impact we have on habitats, he said.

“The photographs depict the rarest of the rare in our country. By photographing the most endangered of our plants and animals, I can make the most dramatic plea to get folks to stop and take a look at the pieces and parts that we’re throwing away,” writes Sartore in the foreword to his book.

“The point of the book is to get people to realize all that’s at stake, and that they should care before the stuff all goes away,” Sartore told me. “There is not much time for all the plants and animals that we see in this book, so it’s urgent.” 

Sadly for one of the species profiled in RARE, it’s beyond urgent The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit went extinct while the book was being made.


Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit Brachylagus idahoensis | Population 0 | Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon
Bryn the pygmy rabbit died in 2008, marking the end of her genetic line. This subpopulation lost its sagebrush habitat as the land was developed for agriculture. Key features of Bryn’s genetic material survive in hybrid pygmy rabbits; a breeding and reintroduction program holds out hope for her kind.

Photo by Joel Sartore

“It’s very critical to not let the rest of the natural world slip away,” Sartore added. “It’s folly…to think that we can drive everything else to extinction but it won’t matter to us, it won’t have any effect on us. But I’m here to tell you that it will probably bite us real hard if we lose enough species.”

There is still hope though, the photographer says. By giving voice to creatures both great and small, Sartore believes that people will be moved to protect them and their habitats.

RARE from Joel Sartore on Vimeo.

The species featured in RARE range from condors to crocodiles, wolverines to woodpeckers, snails to sea turtles, plovers to pitcher plants. “Some, like the bald eagle, are so iconic that it’s easy to see why we would take the trouble to save them,” says a National Geographic blurb about the book.

“Others, like the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly or the Higgins eye mussel, are probably unknown to most and have no immediate iconic appeal except for their own intrinsic beauty. Yet they are also indicator species, canaries in the coal mine, whose way of life has been hindered by development, pollution or other threats.”


California Condor Gymnogyps californianus | Population 356 | Phoenix Zoo, Phoenix, Arizona
Nine wild condors remained in 1985, many of their predecessors felled by hunters or poisoned by eating fragments of lead shot. Captive breeding and reduced use of lead ammunition have restored North America’s largest flying bird.

Photo by Joel Sartore


Delhi Sands Flower-Loving Fly Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis | Population <1,000 | Colton, California
This fly is now relegated to a few vacant lots in the Los Angeles Basin. The photo you’re looking at may be its last hurrah. “The world would go on without it,” says biologist Ken Osborne of this humble southern California dunes dweller, “but it would be a shame.”

Photo by Joel Sartore

The portraits are grouped by population size, from “unknown” (includes Northern spotted owl and California tiger salamander) to “less than 1,000″ (includes Clay’s hibiscus with less than 75 individuals and the Mississippi sandhill crane with just 155) to “1,000-10,000″ (includes the grizzly bear at 1,500 and the American crocodile at 2,000) to “more than 10,000″ (includes the bog turtle with 18,100 individuals and the lesser prairie chicken with 30,000).

The final chapter celebrates populations “on the rise.” Endangered species making a comeback include the gray wolf, now numbering 4,128, the bald eagle, with a population of around 20,000, and the American alligator, which has rebounded from the verge of extinction to more than 1 million individuals.


Leatherback Sea Turtle Dermochelys coriacea | Population ≤ 3,000 | Southern Bioko Island, Equatorial New Guinea
The world’s largest reptiles, leatherbacks can exceed seven feet in length and a ton in weight. They can dive down nearly a mile–deeper than any other turtle–and stay underwater for 85 minutes. Their migrations are also the longest, with some recorded at 6,500 miles. These amazing creatures are endangered by human interactions, both intentional and unintentional: fishing lines, nets, boat hulls, propellers, and plastic debris, which the turtles mistake for jellyfish and ingest.

Photo by Joel Sartore


Grizzly Bear Ursus arctos horribilis | Population about 1,500 | Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, Kansas
Guarded by the Endangered Species Act, grizzlies are returning to old haunts while conservationists work to reconnect remaining habitats in the northern Rockies. Humans nearly exterminated these bears: Montana grizzly expert Chris Servheen estimates that between 1920 and 1940 fewer than 300 existed in the lower 48 states.

Photo by Joel Sartore

Accompanying the images are insights from Sartore, details on how he made the shots and information on the threats facing each species.

The book also includes an essay by acclaimed author Verlyn Klingenborg, in which he examines the history and purpose of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and how effective it has been. A total of 1,321 domestic plants, animals and insects are currently on the endangered or threatened list. Critical habitat has been designated for 538 of them, and there are 848 habitat conservation plans. Just 49 species have been removed from the endangered or threatened list since 1973. Of these, nine went extinct.


Yellowfin Madtom Noturus flavipinnis | Population about 8,300 |
Conservation Fisheries, Knoxville, Tennessee
A small catfish confined to the Tennessee River Valley, the yellowfin madtom for eons laid its eggs under rocks. Along came farmers and their cows, their activity filling the rivers with silt. Gone were the nooks and crannies the madtom needed to perpetuate their own kind; survivors carry their genes into a murky future.

Photo by Joel Sartore


Northern Spotted Owl Strix occidentalis caurina | Population unknown | Oregon Zoo, Portland, Oregon
 ”Spotted owl burgers” are the tongue-in-cheek menu item in some Pacific Northwest logging communities. The object of anticonservation scorn, this threatened bird of prey prefers old-growth forests. It competes–and occasionally mates–with another species, the barred owl.

Photo by Joel Sartore


Ocelot Leopardus pardalis | Population 195 | San Diego Zoo, San Diego, California
Wild ocelots are gone from all U.S. states except Texas, evicted by human development; the illegal trade in exotic furs and pets has also put a dent in population size. These elusive cats still roam the wilds of Central and South America, though there’s little reliable data on their true numbers.

Photo by Joel Sartore

“Perhaps it goes without saying that a wealthy nation like the United States should take the responsibility for considering the well-being of other species. Our wealth is what put so many species at risk in the first place. We have no way of guessing how long our own species will survive on this planet. But one thing is certain. The better the chances of survival for the plants and animals you see in these photographs–and for all their endangered kin–the better our own chances for survival will be,” writes Klingenborg as he eloquently states the case for preserving biodiversity.


Mexican Gray Wolf Canis lupus baileyi | Population 392 | Wild Canid Center, Eureka, Missouri
Captive breeding programs have helped stabilize the sinking population of Mexican gray wolves, a genetically distinct subspecies. The wolves have regained some ground in Arizona and New Mexico, but they still must contend with poachers and a sometimes hostile public.

Photo by Joel Sartore

Sartore is winner of the 2010 North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) “Outstanding Photographer of the Year” award, and award winner at the 2010 Pictures of the Year International (POYi) competition for images that form the foundation of this book. He has been a National Geographic photographer for more than two decades and is the author of several books, including “Face to Face with Grizzlies” (2007) and “Photographing Your Family” (2008) and is a regular contributor to “CBS Sunday Morning” with Charles Osgood. His work has been featured on NBC’s “Nightly News,” CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and in an hour-long PBS documentary, “At Close Range with National Geographic.”

See more photos and video on Joel Sartore’s website.

Klingenborg is the author of “Making Hay” (1986), “The Last Fine Time” (1991), “The Rural Life” (2003) and “Timothy: or, Notes of an Abject Reptile” (2006). He is a frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine and was the author of the January 2009 article from which this book evolved.

Photos from Joel Sartore’s book will be on display at the National Geographic Museum, Washington, D.C., through October 11.


Salt Creek Tiger Beetle Cicindela nevadica lincolniana | Population 194 | University of Nebraska, Lincoln,
Rare and becoming rarer, this insect is found solely in saline wetlands in the northern part of Lancaster County, in southeastern Nebraska. By 1999, some 90 percent of its habitat had been lost to commercial development. The city of Lincoln set aside additional wetland, but the gesture may prove too little, too late.

Photo by Joel Sartore

Posted by David Braun

National Geographic Books provided a copy of RARE: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species as well as photos and other promotional materials for this book review.

Joel Sartore is represented by National Geographic Image Collection. His images are available as prints at and at for licensing.


St. Andrew Beach Mouse Peromyscus polionotus peninsularis | Population ≤ 6,000 | Panama City, Florida
In diminishing numbers, these mice live on about 20 miles of the Florida Panhandle–a narrow margin for survival. Why save them? They are a unique species and an important part of the food chain. Furthermore, their existence is a good indicator of a healthy dune ecosystem.

Photo by Joel Sartore 

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn