SOME STATE ANIMALS ARE NOT NATIVE SPECIES

by Whit Gibbons

July 16, 2017

Designating animals as official symbols allows people to recognize and appreciate a state’s wildlife. It can also focus attention on animals that might otherwise go unrecognized by anyone except experts. Some choices, however, reflect not-so-hidden agendas. Others just leave you scratching your head.

For example, no record exists of the wolverine ever having populated Michigan. Yet it is Michigan’s state mammal. Seventeen states have chosen as their “state insect” the European honeybee, a species that is not even native to the country.

For reasons unknown to me, Alabama has two butterflies as state symbols. One, the eastern tiger swallowtail, is the “state butterfly.” The monarch butterfly, on the other hand, is the “state insect.” I suppose it’s understandable that the boll weevil didn’t make the cut.

State birds also have a few notable entries. Is the cardinal really the most interesting bird in seven eastern states and the mockingbird the best choice in five?

Nor is redundancy limited to a single geographic region. Six western states selected the western meadowlark as their symbol. Not that anything is wrong with cardinals, mockingbirds and western meadowlarks. But why would you want to copy another state’s selection? Alabama’s choice of a woodpecker – the flicker aka yellowhammer – and South Carolina’s Carolina wren are much more creative choices.

Some state animal symbols are clearly founded on a legislative agenda. For example, instead of selecting some cool and interesting native non-game mammal, most state symbols are game species. But as with the copycat state birds, why did a dozen states select the white-tailed deer?

I much prefer the badger chosen by Wisconsin, the Olympic marmot by Washington and the ring-tailed cat by Arizona. And who could object to Connecticut’s mammal, the sperm whale? At least the legislature didn’t designate it as the official state fish.

Some legislatures are not content with selecting a single animal to represent their state. I am not sure what the purpose of having multiple symbols for the same animal group is, but Florida, Massachusetts and Wisconsin have four state mammals each.

Texas being Texas, it has five, including the state dog and the state horse. But South Carolina also has five state mammals, so look for Texas to indulge in one-upmanship by adding a state cat or a state rodent. Let’s hope they do not pick one of the cats that Maine, Maryland and Massachusetts have already officially designated as theirs.

Fish have not been neglected among state symbols, but redundancy abounds there, too. Alabama and all four contiguous states think the largemouth bass is the quintessential fish for them. Indiana made the same choice.

Nineteen states have chosen a species of trout as their symbolic fish. In fact, except for the reef triggerfish of Hawaii, the garibaldi of California and the paddlefish of Missouri, all official state fish are hook-and-line species, and most can be eaten.

Some state animal symbols serve to promote much-needed environmental awareness. Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma have a state bat, although the latter two picked the same one – the Mexican freetail bat.

More than half of the states have a state reptile, with the Alabama red-bellied turtle being the least likely to be duplicated by another state. Four picked the painted turtle, and four others made box turtles their species of choice, although more interesting native turtles are found in each of those states.

Maryland’s selection of the diamond-backed terrapin was a proper choice. State amphibians have been designated in 22 states, split almost evenly between salamanders and frogs (including a couple of toads).

Even crustaceans have made it into the list of symbols in three states, with the Louisiana crawfish, the blue crab in Maryland and Dungeness crab in Oregon being obvious choices – at least for restaurant-goers.

Highlighting the existence of wildlife in a symbolic way can bring greater public appreciation for what lives around us. Highlighting native species would be even better.

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