Aside from the glaciers, forests, and mountains in the state known as “The Last Frontier,” there is also a plethora of wildlife you may never encounter in any other state in the US.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, nearly 1,100 vertebrate species inhabit the expansive Alaskan terrain. And while there is no exact count, thousands of invertebrates make Alaska their home as well.
This state has such a rich and diverse mix of wildlife, from tundra animals to endangered species. A typical cruise or road trip could involve encounters with eagles flying over glaciers, whales swimming in the distance, and bears roving the shorelines.
In fact, you may not even have to leave the comfort of your Airbnb to witness the Alaskan wildlife. I’ve seen a moose, bear, and a beluga whale (yes!) from the living room of an Anchorage condo!
So if you’re looking to get up close and personal with some of Alaska’s incredible wildlife, read on to discover what species you might see on your trip.
Because of their adaptability, wolves can exist in various habitats, from the arctic tundra on the Beaufort Sea to the Southeast panhandle of Alaska.
They can be found on Unimak Island, throughout the mainland, and all of the significant Southeast islands of Alaska except for Chicagof, Baranof, and Admiralty.
Wolves have found an ideal home in this state as they have never been endangered or under threat here.
The state of Alaska allows 1,300 wolves each year to be hunted or trapped to control the population so they peacefully coexist with the natives.
Gray wolves, northwestern wolves, amaguk, and McKenzie Valley wolves are the species that live in Alaska. They mainly prey on Sitka black-tailed deer, moose, mountain goat, caribou, beaver, and Dall sheep.
Because wolves are intrinsically elusive, the best place to spot one is in the state parks, such as Denali.
2. Arctic Foxes
Arctic foxes have dense fur, short ears, and short legs that give them a stockier appearance compared to red foxes. They grow to about 43 inches long on average, including their 15-inch long tail, and weigh between 6 to 10 pounds.
There are two distinct coat colors for the arctic foxes: white and blue.
The blue coat arctic foxes are primarily found in the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands, while the white coat arctic foxes are more common in the northern parts of Alaska.
The pups are born in dens that are 6 to 12 feet underground. For each litter, there are about 7 to 15 pups.
Arctic foxes are monogamous, and both take on raising the pups and bringing them food. Most arctic foxes die in their first year, but some live up to 11 years.
3. Polar Bears
Polar bears hold the title of being the largest carnivores on Earth. They spend most of their time on sea ice, hunting for seals. Because of this, if you want to spot one, it would be best to head over to the polar regions or the coastlines during fall and spring.
They can also sometimes be found on land near Kotzebue and Barrow. They are dangerous animals and have been known to stalk humans, so make sure to go with a tour group or an experienced guide.
Polar bears have waterproof hair that keeps them warm while they’re swimming and fur that cover the bottoms of their feet. They don’t tolerate temperatures above 50°F because of their thick coat.
4. Brown Bears
Both Kodiak and grizzly bears are considered brown bears. They typically live along the coastal areas of the southern part of Alaska where salmon spawn and they have access to a wide range of vegetation.
Brown bears have long claws that they use to dig for small animals and roots. They also have evolved with a prominent hump on their shoulder. This hump is from the muscles they’ve developed to run fast to hunt caribou and moose as well as for digging.
Growing up on Kodiak, bear safety was a big deal, and it is advised that anyone hiking, walking trails, or camping takes bear spray to keep safe.
Every summer, five species of salmon return to the streams and rivers of Alaska to spawn: chum, king, silver, red, and pink.
King salmon has white to red or orange flesh and is in season every April through September and is known to have the highest amount of Omega-3 fatty acids compared to other species of salmon.
Like the king salmon in flavor, silver salmon have a deep red to pinkish-orange flesh that is firm in texture. They are in season between July to October. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) classifies silver salmon as threatened.
73% of the wild red salmon caught come from Alaska, and it is in season every May through September. This fish has a high-fat content and a bright, deep orange flesh. This type of salmon is popular for smoking and canning.
Pink salmon is in season every July to August. Its flesh is pink with a fine texture and minimal fat. Its flavor is also milder compared to other species of salmon. Similar to red salmon, pink salmon is also popular for canning. It is also sold at bargain prices when sold whole.
Chum salmon is in season from June to October. Chum salmon caught in the ocean are called silver brights, have reddish flesh, and fetch a higher price in the market than freshwater chum salmon. Those caught in freshwater are called “dark” or “semi-bright” and have paler flesh than silver bright. Chum salmon are usually sold as sausages or salmon burgers.
Alaska is also known to have the healthiest and best-managed fisheries globally because they only harvest the amount of salmon that doesn’t endanger its population in the long term.
The Alaskan moose and the Yukon moose are the largest moose species, with the larger Alaskan moose coming from the western part of the state. When you see one in person, you are absolutely stunned by the size of them!
They weigh between 800 to 1,600 pounds and can reach up to 6 feet tall. Depending on their age and the season, their color can range from golden brown to black. They can live up to 16 years of age.
Most people recognize moose by their antlers, but it is only the male moose that have antlers. From late September to early October, male moose engage in the rut, where they battle each other by running headfirst into each other and pushing with their antlers. The winner of the battle typically gets to mate with the females.
There are 32 herds of caribou in Alaska, where most being the barren-ground subspecies and one herd being the woodland subspecies. Caribou is part of the deer family, and they are the only species of deer wherein both males and females have antlers.
They have large, wide-spread, concave hooves that help support the animal in soft tundra and snow. They act as paddles as well when the caribou swim. They are clove brown in color with a white flank stripe and white feet, rump, and neck.
They weigh between 175 to 400 pounds. The caribou in the southern and interior parts of Alaska usually are larger than those in the southwestern and northern parts of the state.
Caribou have to keep moving to find enough food and migrate up to 400 miles from the summer to winter. During the summer, caribou eat mushrooms, willows, flowering tundra plants, and sedges. In the fall, they eat small shrubs such as blueberry, dried sedges, and lichens.
Muskoxen have a stocky body, a slight shoulder hump, horns that curl towards their faces, cloven hooves that are similar in size, and long fur that skims the ground. Its coat is dark brown and cream-colored in the legs, forehead, and saddle.
They have underhair that is softer than cashmere, which is why some are held in captivity and groomed. This soft hair is knitted into hats, scarves, and other water-resistant, warm items by natives of different villages. Each village has its own pattern, and the knit items are highly prized.
Muskoxen range between 400 to 800 pounds, and the ones found in Alaska are the Greenland subspecies. In the 1920s, muskoxen disappeared in Alaska, and conservation efforts restored its population in the state.
Muskoxen can be found on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Nunivak Island, Seward Peninsula, Nelson Island, and the Far North. In the summer, they migrate towards the river valleys to graze on the grass and sedges but move to higher ground in the winter to avoid the deep snow.
Both subspecies of bison, wood and plains, inhabit Alaska, but only wood bison are endemic. The wood bison is larger than the plains bison ranging between 1,200 to more than 2,000 pounds. On the other hand, Plains bison have more violent interactions during the rut than wood bison.
Bison have beard-like hair on their chin and horns that curl upward. They have large shoulders and heads compared to the other half of their body. They also have a prominent hump on their shoulders. This hump evolved from the bison’s need to support muscles that control their heads when they sweep through deep snow to gain access to grass and sedges during the wintertime.
Bisons’ hair is human-like, dense, soft, and durable. The coat is dark brown to black along the lower body and legs, and is is light brown around the hump.
The lynx is part of the wild cat family. It is native to Alaska and is similar to the bobcat with its large size and short tail. It is distinguishable from the bobcat from its black-tipped tail, long legs, long tufts of hair at the tip of each ear, and furry feet.
The lynx has large, broad feet that help it navigate through the snowy terrain in Alaska. Its coat is indistinctly spotted and gray. Its weight ranges from 18 to 40 pounds.
Lynx can be found in the forests of mainland Alaska except for the islands of the Bering Sea, Kodiak archipelago, Aleutian Islands, and some islands in Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound. They thrive in forested areas with vegetation their prey feed on.
Usually, lynx prey on horseshoe hares, but when those are scarce, they prey on smaller animals such as microtine rodents, grouse, squirrels, and ptarmigan. They have also been observed to prey on foxes, Dall sheep, and caribou. They hunt mainly on the ground and use trees to escape from large predators such as wolves.
Wolverines are found throughout Alaska but exist in lower densities in some areas because they are overly populated by people or not conducive to building their dens.
Wolverines have long, dark brown to black-colored hair with a white to gold stripe running along both shoulders to their tail’s base. They also usually sport a white patch of hair on their chest and neck.
They have broad, flat heads, a thick body, short ears, and short legs. They have curved, semi-retractable claws that they use to climb trees. They walk on the soles of their feet, making them well-suited to travel through the deep, soft snow in Alaska.
12. Dall Sheep
You can find Dall sheep inhabiting the Alaskan mountain ranges. Both male and female Dall sheep have horns, with the males’ being more massive and curled. Their horns have rings called annuli that determine the Dall sheep’s age — they can reach up to 19 years of age.
Rams live separately from ewes except during mating season. Like most horned creatures, the rams engage in clashing. However, it is not for mating purposes but to establish order and rank in the group.
During the summertime, Dall sheep have various vegetation to choose from, but their diet is limited to dry, frozen sedge stems and grass, moss, and lichen in the wintertime. In the springtime, Dall sheep travel many miles to visit places with an abundant deposit of salt and minerals on the ground, known as mineral licks.
13. Mountain Goats
Mountain goats are larger than Dall sheep and are very muscular. Therefore, they are better equipped to dig for food during the wintertime and inhabit areas that have heavier and wetter snow, such as the Kenai Fjords National Park and its surrounding areas. They also coexist with Dall sheep in Southcentral Alaska.
The name mountain goat is a misnomer because they are not goats but are from the antelope family. They are very agile when it comes to navigating the steep inclines of the Alaskan mountain ranges. Their agility can be attributed to their well-developed shoulder muscles that help them climb and because their hooves have two toes that move independently.
Both female and male mountain goats have black horns that are about 8 to 12 inches long. They have long, thick white hair that helps keep them warm during the cold season.
The North American porcupine is the second-largest rodent in Alaska, next to the beaver. It is a mammal covered in hair and quills of various lengths, stout body, and short legs.
It ranges from 25 to 31 inches in length and weighs between 11 to 18 pounds on average. Along with its fur, the porcupine has a layer of fat that helps keep it warm during the winter.
The porcupine’s muscular tail has quills at the upper portion and bristle-like hairs at its underside, which helps it climb. They live in the forests, tundra areas, and rocky slopes. It is found throughout Alaska except for St. Lawrence Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, Nunivak, and Kodiak.
When the porcupine is in defense mode, its quills bristle, and it emits a pungent smell to warn the predator. A porcupine’s sense of taste, hearing, and smell but has very poor eyesight.
Porcupines are herbivores and eat the green leaves and buds of willow, birch, cottonwood, and aspen trees during the spring and summer. During the winter, they eat the bark of hemlock, birch, and spruce, and spruce needles.
A porcupine’s natural diet is low in salt and calcium, so they will seek salt licks and other items that have sodium and calcium, such as paint, road salt, and bones of dead animals.
15. Bald Eagles
The bald eagle is the US symbol of freedom and has also been a spiritual symbol for Alaskan natives even longer. The adult bald eagle has a distinctive white head and tail and a yellow beak.
It is the largest bird of prey in Alaska, with an average weight of 8 to 14 pounds and a wingspan of 7.5 feet. Female bald eagles usually are larger than males.
Bald eagles can only be found in North America, and Alaska has the most abundant population of these birds compared to any other place in the United States, with around 30,000.
One of the most recognizable (and my personal favorite!) birds in Alaska is the puffin. It is easily identifiable with its sizeable colorful bill, red or orange webbed feet, short wings, and stout bodies.
There are two subspecies of puffins in Alaska: the horned puffin and the tufted puffin. Horned puffins have black necks and backs and white on their chest and sides of their heads. Tufted puffins have black bodies and white faces with tufts of feathers that curl back from the sides of their heads.
Puffins are usually found in the open sea and come to land in the summer to breed. The puffins breed on Forrester Island in southeastern Alaska and Cape Lisburn on the Chukchi Sea Coast. Tufted puffins are located further south than the horned puffins.
17. Snowy Owls
The snowy owl is Alaska’s heaviest owl, coming at 23 inches long. It has long wings, yellow eyes, no ear tufts, and a round head. Male snowy owls are all white, while female and young owls are heavily barred.
Snowy owls are capable of hunting both day and night and have extra-sharp hearing and sight. They usually prey on voles and lemmings, but they may even prey on larger animals such as ducks when their preferred food is scarce.
They hunt and nest in the open tundra, laying their eggs on an elevated mound on the ground. Since their nests are just on the ground, their eggs are heavily preyed on by arctic foxes.
18. Sea Otters
Sea otters are the largest of the mink family and the smallest marine mammal. 90% of sea otters live in the coastal areas of Alaska.
In 1742, Vitus Bering, a Danish sea captain, brought sea otter pelts to Russia. Russians flocked to Alaska to set up fur-trading settlements in the coastal areas, nearly hunting these mammals to extinction. Currently, sea otter populations are back to a healthy number.
Sea otters have dense fur that traps bubbles to help keep them afloat in the water and keep their bodies from getting wet. They do not have a thick layer of fat likes seals or other marine mammals and only rely on their fur to keep them warm.
You can spot sea otters all year round in Alaska. The best places to see them are south to the Inside Passage, Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, and Kenai Peninsula.
These social animals are often found in small communities along the coast, floating on their backs, trying to crack open mussels or some other shellfish. As a kid on Kodiak, they would swim around our boat when we went out to fish for halibut!
Walruses have a whiskered face, ivory tusks, and red-colored skin. Their tough hide is about an inch thick, and they have solid bodies. They are pinnipeds, like sea lions and seals, meaning they have front and rear flippers.
Walruses can grow up to 12 feet long and weigh between 1 to 2 tons. They can live up to 40 years old.
They can be found along the mainland coasts of Alaska and the Bering and Chukchi seas. Unlike other pinnipeds, walruses mate during the winter in the water and give birth on ice floes in springtime.
With the help of their whiskers, walruses find tunicates, clams, sea cucumbers, snails, and worms on the seafloor to feed on. Aside from their tusks, walrus teeth are flat, so instead of biting shells to crack them open, they suck out the contents.
20. Steller Sea Lions
Steller sea lions have light blonde to reddish-brown hair getting darker near the abdomen and chest. They have whiskers on their muzzles that help them find prey and navigate in the water. Their flippers are used both for swimming and for walking on land.
Adult male Steller sea lions are much larger than females. Females can weigh up to 800 pounds and are 7.5 to 9.5 feet long, compared to males that can grow up to 11 feet long and weigh up to 2,500 pounds.
There are two distinct population segments of Steller sea lions: the eastern distinct population segment (DPS) and the western DPS. The western DPS are the Steller sea lions west of Cape Suckling. The western DPS population is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act. The eastern DPS are those east of Cape Suckling.
The icy Alaskan waters are the perfect habitat for whales, the largest mammals on Earth. Several whale species inhabit Alaska: Gray, humpback, fin whales, and orcas usually swim in the open ocean, fjords, bays, and inlets.
Occasionally, you may spot minke, sperm, and blue whales as well. Migration is the primary reason why whales are abundant on the coasts of Alaska.
Some species of whales, such as the orca, can be seen year-round in the state, but the best time to go whale watching is during the summer, with whale season being May through September. Starting April, grey whales begin making an appearance, and come May, you will start seeing the orcas, followed by the humpbacks in June.
You can find whales throughout the coast of Alaska. One of the best places to whale watch is Ressurection Bay in the Kenai Fjords National Park. Its rich and diverse marine ecosystem draws in the whales for feeding.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, grow between 23 to 27 feet in length. Males may weigh up to double that of females. They are primarily black, with patches of white above and behind each eye and under the jaw. Most of the killer whale’s belly is also white.
They have a very tall dorsal fin which reaches about 3 feet in height in females and up to 6 feet in males. Male orcas live up to 50 years while females live to 80 years.
Orcas feed on large marine animals. Interestingly, resident orcas usually feed on fish, while transient orcas feed on marine mammals. They also can attack in a pack and feed cooperatively.
23. Beluga Whales
Beluga whales are born gray and turn white as they get older. They have a sizeable bulbous structure on their head, called a melon, and robust bodies. Instead of a dorsal fin, they have a ridge running down their back.
To keep themselves warm, they have a thick layer of fat, sometimes even 5 inches thick. They grow between 11 to 15 feet in length and weigh between 1,000 to 3,000 pounds.
Belugas mainly feed on fish and eat sandworms, octopuses, snails, squid, mussels, shrimp, clams, and crab. They often travel in pods and only spend about 4 to 7 percent of their time at the surface.
In Alaska, there are five populations of beluga whales: Beaufort Sea, Cook Inlet, eastern Chukchi Sea, Bristol Bay, and the eastern Bering Sea. The beluga population in the Cook Inlet area is considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
There are three species of shark commonly found in Alaska. These are the salmon sharks, spiny dogfish sharks, and the Pacific sleeper sharks. Occasionally, other species such as six-gill, great white, blue, and others make their way into the Alaskan waters.
The Pacific sleeper sharks are the largest in Alaska and the most mysterious one as not too much information is known about them. Spiny dogfish are primarily found in the Gulf of Alaska. Amazingly, this species of shark can live up to 100 years or more. The least encountered shark is the salmon shark.
Marine turtles are giant, aquatic reptiles with large flippers as forelimbs and smaller flippers as hindlimbs that they use for swimming. They rarely come onshore except when they’re basking in the sun or when the females lay eggs.
There are four marine turtle species in Alaska: loggerhead, leatherback, Olive ridley, and green sea turtles. Freshwater and terrestrial turtles are not native to Alaska. All four are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.