North America

A World in One Continent


By Huw Cordey

Foreword by Mark Tercek

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The North American continent stretches over 9.5 million square miles, and is home to more than 500 million people, who share it with hundreds of thousands of species of mammals, birds, insects, and plants — many of them extraordinary, unforgettable, and unique. With 150,000 miles of coastline, North America also has the longest and most abundant shores of any continent on Earth.

In the stunning seven-part series from Discovery Channel, renowned nature producer Huw Cordey travels from the Arctic to the Tropics, revealing the wonders of the most dynamic continent on Earth — from the stunning glow of the Aura Borealis in Alaska to the thousands of tornadoes that batter the Great Plains each year to the 55-ton crystals in Mexico’s Crystal Cave.

North America, the companion book to the television series, follows the producers as they tell the story of this rich and eclectic land through more than 250 gorgeous full-color photographs and engaging essays. Chock-full of interesting facts about the various ecology and wildlife of the many regions of the continent — Prairies, Coasts, Mountains, Freshwater, Deserts, and Forests — North America exposes the continent as you’ve never seen it before.



North America is the most extraordinary continent on earth. Stretching from the tropics of Panama to the icy wastelands of northern Canada and the Arctic, it has the greatest range of landscapes, the greatest extremes of seasons, and the most exciting variety of wildlife on the planet. It is a world in one continent, with its magnificent mountain ranges, great deserts, vast plains, breathtaking canyons, and lush forests.

Here you can experience the most extreme temperature changes in the world, and the most terrifying and brutal weather: tornadoes, hurricanes, great storms, sudden snowfall, and scorching heat. And the breathtaking natural diversity and abundance of riches that these conditions create is home to many of nature’s greatest marvels, including the world’s tallest, biggest, and oldest trees; a canyon that is one of the seven natural wonders of the world; the world’s oldest mountain range; and the world’s largest freshwater lake.

It is a land of surprises. Who would have thought that mankind’s greatest allies—the dog, the horse, and the camel—all originated in North America? Or that it is the only continent to have every kind of climate? Or that it is home to the world’s tallest mountain? Measured from base to tip, Alaska’s Mount McKinley/Denali is taller than Mount Everest.

With 150,000 miles of coastline, North America also has the longest and most abundant shores of any continent on earth. And its two coasts, East and West, could not be more different from one another. On the East are the warm, shallow seas of the Atlantic that produce rich corals and the world’s greatest tidal ranges, and nurture a huge diversity of sea life. On the West, the vast swells of the Pacific Ocean hit the steep cliffs of the great mountain ranges that rise, harsh and jagged, from the deep.

The North American continent stretches for over 9.5 million square miles, and is home to twenty-four countries and almost 528 million people, who share it with hundreds of thousands of species of mammals, birds, insects, and plants—many of them extraordinary, unforgettable, and unique.

The Pacific Coast sees some of the largest waves on the continent. The deep waters and thousands of miles of clear ocean can cause the waves to rise as high as 33 feet (10 m).

The film crew drives though hurricane Irene as it hits North Carolina.

Bogged down in the Costa Rica rainforest.


Our team spent over three years filming the natural wonders of this great continent to make a landmark series of programs. It was an enormous challenge deciding where to go, what to include, and how to capture the dramatic and unpredictable weather events and the often extraordinary behaviors of creatures in their natural habitat, from the courtship dance of the tiny jumping spider, to the death-defying fishing techniques of a small band of bottlenose dolphins, to the struggle for survival of thousands of baby turtles on the tropical beaches of the South.

We wanted to discover the heart of North America—the places, natural events, and animal and plant life that gives this continent its unique character, and to show its weather shifts, landscapes, and wildlife through a fresh lens. And we wanted to capture imaginations with a series that would include the most remote corners of the continent and its animals, as they had never been filmed before. To make the kind of programs we wanted would mean getting camera teams and equipment to out-of-the-way places, like Labrador, the Aleutian Islands, and the depths of the Panamanian jungle, and then setting up camp for several weeks—and this would require plenty of time, a generous budget, and a great deal of planning.

The team included some of the most knowledgeable and experienced natural history filmmakers and cameramen in the world—people with a passion for nature and with determination, ingenuity, skill, and above all, endless patience. We did a huge amount of research and we also consulted some brilliant scientists and wildlife experts whose guidance, advice, and expertise helped to ensure that we were, whenever possible, in the right places at the right times.

Many of the animals in North America show the same brave and hardy spirit that characterized the early pioneers. To survive you must be tough and adaptable, and in the deserts and the snows, in the seas and the lakes, and even on the plains, there is still a great struggle for survival every single day, for creatures both large and small. More than anything else, it is this epic struggle in North America’s extreme and harsh environments that we set out to capture, through the behavior of animals like the pronghorn, which migrate for extraordinary distances to find food; the spadefoot toad, which lives underground most of its life to avoid the heat of the desert; and the all-American coyote, so tough and adaptable that it can survive in temperatures as low as -50°F (-46°C) in the bitter chill of Yellowstone, or as high as 120°F (49°C) in the blistering heat of Death Valley.

Camping on glacial ice.

Filming mountain goats in the Rockies.

Of course, animals don’t always do what you expect them to do, and neither does the weather, so sometimes you have to tear your plans up and start again. You can wait weeks for a special moment that doesn’t come, or for the arrival of an animal that doesn’t show up. But it can work the other way too—extraordinary things can happen that make all the planning, watching, and waiting worthwhile; a mother prairie dog confronting a rattlesnake to protect her young, a bobcat playing catch with a gopher, or the world’s smallest rabbit outwitting a weasel.

In all, we spent 2,830 days in the field, with 51 cameramen and women on 250 shoots, in 10 countries, 29 US states, and 8 Canadian provinces, filming hundreds of animals in over 100 different locations, with several shoots in progress at any one time. At the end of it all, we had to reduce many hundreds of hours of filming to six hours of blue-chip natural history programming. It wasn’t easy, but the result is a series we are proud of.

In the following pages, we have attempted to recapture the programs and the stories behind them in words and photographs, and to include some of the details, as well as the amazing tales, that didn’t make our final edit.

The episodes focus on particular types of terrain—the plains, mountains, forests, deserts, rivers, and oceans and their weather and wildlife. But for the opening film, we wanted to give a flavor of the whole North American continent, to capture the variety of the land, the unpredictable power of its weather, and the richness and beauty of the animal life. So we begin with the two ends of the continent, three thousand miles apart; the Far North and the Deep South, the icy tundra of Labrador in northeastern Canada, and the tropical forests and beaches of Costa Rica, to illustrate just how magical and extraordinary the places and creatures were that we discovered on our incredible journey.

Prairie fires quickly engulf the plains.



To begin to know North America, with its rich mix of dramatic and breathtaking beauty, unpredictable cruelty, and unique wildlife, you need to take a brief look back at its history to understand how the continent came into being and the forces of time and nature that shaped it. North America became what it is through millions of years of upheaval and change, and through its physical connections to two other continents: South America and Asia. These land bridges meant that mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and plants could cross back and forth between continents, and many did just that, creating a blend of flora and fauna that became distinctively and unmistakably North American in character.

As the land gradually took shape, throwing up its mountain ranges, flattening its plains, drying out its deserts, and seeding its forests, the weather patterns that are more distinct and changeable than any in the world, gradually evolved.


Many millions of years ago, North America was two landmasses with a sea known as the Bearpaw Sea between them. The eastern land block was geologically constant. Its only mountain range, the Appalachians, began to form over 450 million years ago—making them the oldest mountain range on the planet—and became a strong and stable backbone, while its eastern coast gradually eroded and subsided into the sea, creating a gentle shelf.

The western landmass, by contrast, was geologically restless. It had been joined to Asia by the Bering land bridge and its fauna and flora were largely shared with Asia. Its mountain range was the Sierra Nevada, a jagged range of recently extinct volcanoes. The Rocky Mountains did not yet exist, and the coastline plummeted dramatically into the Pacific. Oregon, Washington, and parts of California were still islands out at sea.

These two landmasses were brought together after a huge asteroid struck earth sixty-five million years ago. Together they formed what would become North America. Across the center where the Bearpaw Sea had been, lay vast stretches of forest that would eventually erode into the Great Plains.

North America was separate from South America and it was a mere 2.8 million years ago that the land connection between them appeared. The impact of this narrow Panamanian land bridge was enormous. For the first time, animals were able to travel between these two continents and they did, in huge numbers. This exchange of species that had developed independently for tens of millions of years was described by famous paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson as “one of the most extraordinary events in the whole history of life.”

While the land bridge joined the continents, it separated the two seas on either side of it, and though it was, and still is, only thirty miles wide, it meant that species now belonged to one sea or the other, and could no longer travel between them.

The animals that traveled into North America from South America joined those that had originated in North America and those that had been arriving, over millions of years, through the land connections to Europe, via Greenland—a connection that was severed forty-five million years ago—and to Asia, via the Bering land bridge, which did not disappear under the sea until around 13,500 years ago. The result was an extraordinarily rich and varied array of wildlife, which has continuously evolved to the present day. No other continent has living species from such different origins. Today the mammals of North America are largely Eurasian, the migratory land birds are largely South American, and its reptiles and amphibians are unique.

The last ice age began around thirty-five thousand years ago and reached its peak eighteen thousand years ago. While global temperatures dropped by an average of four to five degrees, the changes were amplified in North America where the drop was eight to ten degrees, and the continent was covered with more ice than Antarctica. The ice was so heavy that, following the melting of the ice twelve thousand years ago, the continent is still rising. These massive ice caps were hugely significant to the future of North America; they ploughed up the land, generating huge quantities of fresh, new soil and leaving it a richly fertile continent.

Central America

Although many people assume Central America is a separate continent, it is actually the southernmost part of the North American continent. There are seven countries in Central America: Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. Nicaragua is the largest and Belize the smallest. Spanish is the official language in all the countries apart from Belize, where English is spoken.

The Caribbean islands, separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic, are also considered to be a part of North America. There are more than seven thousand islands, islets, reefs, and cays. The largest is Cuba and the others include the Bahamas, Jamaica, Antigua, the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Alaska was purchased from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 million ($120 million in today’s dollars)—that is, about two cents an acre. It became the forty-ninth state on January 3, 1959, seven months before Hawaii became the fiftieth state.

Death Valley in California is one of the hottest and most hostile places in the world.

The Americas were the last continents to be occupied by humans, who arrived via the Bering land connection and then traveled down through North America to South America. Although some scientists believe there was an earlier human presence, the vast majority believe only thirteen thousand years have passed since the first people arrived—forty thousand years after humans reached Australasia—Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and adjacent islands. These earliest inhabitants, known as the Clovis people (named after a town in eastern New Mexico near which artifacts were found), were hunters. They used spearheads known as Clovis points, which have been found throughout North America. Within three hundred years of their arrival, three quarters of all large animals over one hundred pounds (45 kg) including mammoths, giant sloths, camels, and giant bison had disappeared, and although it is possible that climate change played a part in this, the most likely theory is that the Clovis people and their deadly spearheads were responsible.

The North American horses, the camel, the saber tooth, the mammoth, giant beavers and sloths, the short-faced bear, and a number of other large species were all completely wiped out. These creatures had evolved without any human predators, so when humans arrived, the animals were not afraid of them and were easy prey. This is in contrast to Africa, where humans and large animals, such as elephants, evolved together and the animals’ wariness toward humans has, in part, enabled them to survive.

Horses would later return to North America with the Spanish colonists and bison, grizzly bears, elk, and moose all arrived around the time of the Clovis people via Eurasia, while the sloth and the opossum arrived via the bridge to South America.

With temperatures falling to fifty below, the pines of northern Canada become stunted but still form the largest forests of the continent.

North America is the third largest continent in the world, after Asia and Africa. It is bigger than South America, Antarctica, Europe, and Australia.


With its head in the Arctic and its feet just above the equator, North America includes a huge climatic range. With no mountain ranges running east to west across the continent to provide a climatic barrier, the dry, icy winds of the north are funneled by the north-south mountain ranges to meet the moist, warm winds coming up from the south. The result is extraordinary extremes of weather and short-term temperature shifts that hit many parts of the continent. For instance, in Spearfish, South Dakota, the temperature once went from -2°F to 38°F (-19°C to 3°C) in just two minutes—the world’s fastest recorded change in temperature! This clashing of north and south winds over the plains also creates huge storms, many of which spawn tornadoes.

The weather can change dramatically fast and can be dangerously unpredictable, and sometimes deadly. Huge tropical downpours, lightning storms, snowfall and avalanches, harsh winters, brief springs, and sizzling summers are all regular occurrences. The fauna of North America—its mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects—have had to cope with these changes and those that have been able to adapt, to withstand extreme temperatures, to vary their diet, or survive long periods of famine, have flourished. The result is a rich variety of truly fascinating creatures that capture the imagination, from the tiny, inch-long hummingbird that can shut its body down at night to outwit the desert chill, to the ungainly but gentle manatee, which can only survive by taking advantage of the warmth of the Florida springs, to the nimble swift fox that gets through the bitter winter chill because it can hear—and catch—a mouse through 3 feet (1 m) of snow.

We wanted to record North America’s dramatic and sudden climate variations, but this proved difficult during our first year of filming, which was an El Niño year. El Niño is a weather event that occurs every three to seven years, during which there are prolonged temperature anomalies in the surface of the Pacific that can wreak havoc with normal weather patterns. Weather experts were able to predict that it was coming, but not how strong it would be, or its impact. So we had to plan our filming knowing that the weather might change our plans and that the animals might not respond in their usual ways. Fortunately we had a second year of filming and were able to revisit places where El Niño had disrupted both the weather and the wildlife.

Labrador, about twice the size of the US state of Colorado, is on the northeastern tip of the Canadian mainland and is far enough north to attract polar bears.


In the wild and inhospitable far northeast of Canada, just outside the Arctic Circle, the temperatures barely rise above freezing, and there is deep snow on the ground for most of the year. Even in the short three months of summer, there is a distinct chill in the air.

This beautiful but desolate part of the world is largely uninhabited, and is one of the most remote and unknown corners of North America: the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Newfoundland is an island surrounded by the North Atlantic, and Labrador is part of the mainland. And though Labrador is larger than the state of Colorado, its population of mostly native Inuit people is only around twenty thousand. There are few roads and most of the province is a vast wilderness that is impossible to get around, except by dogsled or helicopter and, on the coastal areas, by boat.

We went by helicopter from the small town of Nain to the banks of a fjord three hours north, where we planned to set up a base camp. Ten months earlier, we’d had to ship forty-two drums of spare fuel by boat up to the banks of the fjord so that we could take the helicopter up there, because there was nowhere we could refuel. So when we arrived, we were extremely relieved to see the drums of fuel still sitting on the banks of the fjord.

There is very little wildlife on the icy tundra, but we knew that with the right conditions, patience, and a little luck, we would be able to film extraordinary sights that would make our journey more than worthwhile. And there were three animals in particular that we wanted to film; caribou and the wolves and black bears that prey on them.

Caribou, the largest members of the reindeer family, migrate to this area in the summers. The route they take from the sheltered southern forests where they winter to the tundra of Labrador is over 600 miles (965 km) and it’s not uncommon for herds to travel 1,864 miles (3,000 km) every year.

In the recent past, only fifteen or twenty years ago, herds of hundreds of thousands of caribou have been known to travel together, creating a spectacular sight. Their long journey, crossing rivers, forests, and plains is one of the world’s greatest large animal migrations. But in recent years the herds have decreased dramatically and experts have not yet been able to fully explain why.

The caribou travel to Labrador’s remote terrain because the relative lack of predators makes it a safe place to have their young, and the brief Arctic summer means there is an abundance of tundra grasses and plants to eat.

The pregnant females arrive first, followed a few weeks later by the males and the yearlings. They roam over the tundra all day long, constantly on the move, and stopping only to graze. The calves are able to stand within a couple of hours of birth and can move on with the herd by the next day.

Finding the caribou in the vastness of northern Labrador was far from easy, especially now that the herds are smaller. We flew hundreds of miles, searching the terrain below for them. A small number of caribou have radio collars so that scientists can track their movements, and we would be alerted if a handful of these tracking devices were in one spot, indicating the possible presence of a herd. It took three to four weeks looking every day, sometimes finding herds, sometimes not, filming as often as possible to get the best footage.

Our Night Visitor

Our most terrifying experience in Labrador came when we set up camp for the night in a log-hunting cabin on the edge of a fjord. Before we settled into our bunks for the night, our helicopter pilot, Jeff, fixed the broken lock on the cabin door, and closed the wooden window shutters on the outside of the glass. Little did we know how thankful we would be for his actions. We woke in the night to hear what we were pretty sure was a bear sniffing around. Believing it was a relatively harmless black bear, we didn’t worry—until there was an almighty thump on the door. We couldn’t see what was happening, but it seemed the bear must be on its hind legs, battering the door with its front paws.

It tried several more times while we could only wait, hoping the lock would hold out, before it eventually gave up. The next morning we stepped cautiously outside to find that our helicopter, parked nearby, had been the bear’s next port of call. It had managed to get inside, pop out the side windows, rip up the pilot’s seat, and walk all over our expensive state-of-the-art camera unit.

Down toward the fjord, we found the enormous telltale pug marks of a bear. But this was no black bear; it was the most dangerous predator on Earth, the only creature that has been known to hunt human beings—a polar bear. It had been twenty-five years since a polar bear was seen that far south of the Arctic in Labrador, but when we returned to the same spot a year later to film again, there was a polar bear waiting for us. Smelling a source of food—us—we were pretty sure the same bear had returned to try its luck again.

Silver Springs, Florida, is home of one of the largest artesian springs in the world. The aquifer produces nearly 550 million gallons of crystal-clear water a day and sustains an underwater world teeming with fish, turtles, crustaceans and fossils more than 10,000 years old.

Recent technological advances have made it possible to film animals from a helicopter without disturbing or frightening them. A helicopter can’t fly too close to animals without panicking them, and until recently we could only get long-distance shots from the air. But with the development of gyro-stabilized cameras, we can now film detailed images from a distance.


On Sale
Apr 2, 2013
Page Count
288 pages
Running Press

Huw Cordey

About the Author

Huw Cordey has been making wildlife documentaries for twenty years. Between 1996 and 2009 he worked for the world renown BBC Natural History Unit, producing programs on blue chip, landmark series such as Land of the Tiger, Andes to Amazon, Sir David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals, Planet Earth, Big Cat Diary, and South Pacific. Cordey has written and presented a number of radio programs for the BBC and articles for publications such as BBC Wildlife Magazine and Lonely Planet Magazine.

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