California, nicknamed the Golden State, is among the most important places in the union, both in terms of its economy and its amazing biological diversity. With the third-largest landmass in the entire country, it shares a land border with Oregon to the north, Nevada, and Arizona to the east, and Mexico to the south, while the western coast of the state is bounded by the Pacific Ocean.
Due to its extreme north-to-south configuration, the state encompasses a huge diversity of different climates and ecosystems. In the center of the state lies the California Central Valley. It is surrounded on all sides by several mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, the Klamath Mountains, the Coast Ranges, and the Transverse Ranges. California contains both the highest point, Mount Whitney, and the lowest point, Death Valley, in the entire continental United States. It harbors everything from massive old-growth forests to nearly inhospitable deserts. It may be said that California is a land of extremes.
The Official Animal of California
The state of California is represented by several official animals. The official state fish is the golden trout, originally native to Kern River, south of Mount Whitney. The official state amphibian is the California red-legged frog, the largest native frog in the western United States. The official state insect is the California dogface, a butterfly native to the Sierra Nevada foothills and San Diego area. The official marine fish is the golden orange fish, located right off the southern coast.
The official state reptile is the desert tortoise, located in the southwestern deserts. The official marine reptile is the Pacific leatherback sea turtle, which sometimes comes ashore to lay eggs. The official state bird is the California quail, a popular game bird that sports blue-gray plumage. The official state animal (which also adorns the flag) is the California grizzly bear. While it’s often associated with the state, the grizzly hasn’t actually been present in California since the early 20th century.
Where to Find the Top Wild Animals in California
The state of California is home to some of the most famous parks and wildlife refuges in the United States. It boasts a total of nine national parks and numerous state parks and refuges where visitors can find plenty of wildlife in their natural habitat.
- Yosemite National Park, located in the central Sierra Nevada range, right next to the Sierra National Forest and Stanislaus National Forest, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dominated by steep cliffs, pine groves, shrub lands, and alpine woodlands and meadows, the park harbors plenty of black bears, mule deer, fishers, goshawks, cougars, bobcats, river otters, foxes, and many ferret-like mammals.
- The Redwood National and States parks, located in the far northwest corner of the state, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It encompasses some 100,000 acres of towering redwood forests. Some of the diverse wildlife one can find here includes mountain lions, black bears, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, beavers, river otters, seals, hawks, ospreys, squirrel-like rodents, and much more.
- The Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park, located next to each other in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada range, are home to some of the largest trees on the planet. Visitors can expect to find bighorn sheep, bears, wolverines, cougars, and more.
- Joshua Tree National Park, located near San Bernardino, is named after the craggy trees that thrive in this scenic desert landscape. Roadrunners, tortoises, lizards, coyotes, bobcats, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits, and squirrel-like rodents and kangaroo rats can be found here.
- The Crystal Cove State Park, located near Newport Beach in Orange County, comprises a few acres of coastal cliffs and beachfront coves situated against the Pacific Ocean. It harbors an estimated 180 species of birds, either permanently or seasonally, including the ring bill gull, greater roadrunner, and turkey vulture.
The Most Dangerous Animals in California Today
California is home to its fair share of dangerous wildlife and predators. While many of them may look fearsome and scary, most of these species will almost always try to avoid human contact. Attacks usually occur because the animal perceives people as a potential threat (and rarely as a source of food).
- Rattlesnakes: California is home to five rattlesnake species: the western diamondback, the red diamond rattlesnake, the southern Pacific rattlesnake, the great basin rattlesnake, and the Mojave rattlesnake. While they normally give a warning rattle before striking, you would not want to encounter one in the wilderness. Together they account for 800 bites a year and one or two deaths in California. Symptoms of its venom can include pain, swelling, and neurological issues. The prognosis for survival is quite good, but bite victims should always seek medical attention.
- Spiders: California is home to several venomous spiders, including the southern black widow, the western black widow, the tarantulas, and the recluse spiders. Of all these species, the Chilean recluse spider, an import from Chile, is thought to have particularly potent and potentially lethal venom, but on fortunately it’s quite shy around people.
- Scorpions: The deserts and dry scrub lands of California have several species of scorpions, the most dangerous of which is probably the Arizona bark scorpion. Symptoms of its venom include pain, nausea, numbness, and possibly even convulsions. Healthy adults will almost always recover, but seniors and small children are more at risk of death. Fortunately, they live in the most remote and inhospitable locations of California, where they’re rarely encountered.
- Wasps and Bees: While these insects would normally cause no more than a painful sting, some people may be at risk of having an allergic reaction, which can be fatal in rare circumstances. The so-called “killer bees,” which result from a cross between western and African honey bees, are no more dangerous than other species in terms of their venom, but they do have a tendency to swarm fast and attack in very large numbers.
- Great White Sharks: Their enormous size (up to 21 feet) and several rows of sharp teeth contribute to the fearsome reputation of these predators. But there have only been a handful of recorded deaths from great white attacks in California’s history. It’s thought that most attacks are caused by curiosity, confusion, or fear on the shark’s part. They normally only bite once, but the blood loss alone might be enough to kill.
- Black Bear: While black bears are normally not that aggressive, they have been known to attack people over access to food or to protect their cubs. Fortunately, the vast majority of on-foot encounters rarely end in attacks.
Endangered Animals in California
The state of California maintains its own list of threatened animals, independent from the federal government. Normally, at any one time, some 50 species are thought to be in danger of extinction. These include some of the rarest animals in the state.
- Kangaroo Rats: There are actually six species of these small rodents threatened in California: the Morro Bay kangaroo rat, the giant kangaroo rat, the San Bernardino kangaroo rat, the Fresno kangaroo rat, the Tipton kangaroo rat, and Stephens’ kangaroo rat. Despite its small size, these mammals have an amazing ability to leap as high as 9 feet into the air.
- Ground Squirrels: A few squirrel-like species, including the San Joaquin antelope squirrel and Mohave ground squirrel, are currently being threatened by habitat loss. The main reasons for their decline are agriculture and urban development.
- Southern Sea Otter: Up until the early 20th century, the sea otter was hunted almost to extinction for their incredibly thick coat of fur. While numbers have risen again along the Californian coast, it is still considered to be an endangered species.
- Humboldt Marten: This subspecies of the ferret-like Pacific marten is native to old growth redwood forests throughout the state. It was thought to be completely extinct until being rediscovered in 1996. Commercial trapping and habitat limitations are to blame for the decline of this ferret-like species.
- California Condor: Among the largest birds in the world, this strange bald-headed vulture briefly became extinct in the wild in 1987 due to poaching, poisoning, and habitat destruction (all exacerbated by its slow maturation rate). It was later reintroduced back into the wild thanks to one of the largest conservation efforts ever conceived, but it is still one of the rarest birds in the world with only a few hundred remaining.
- California Brown Pelican: This subspecies of the brown pelican is native to the Californian and Mexican coasts. For a long time it was threatened by pesticide use, but numbers appear to be recovering again.
- Greater Sandhill Crane: The greater sandhill crane is a subspecies of the large North American wading bird. By 1940, it was estimated that fewer than a thousand birds remained in the wild because of hunting and habitat loss. Populations have since risen to nearly 100,000, but they are still below their peak.
- Sea Turtles: The leatherback and loggerhead sea turtle come ashore in California to lay eggs. They are currently endangered from marine pollution, net entanglements, and the loss of critical nest-laying sites.
- Mountain Yellow-legged Frog: Native to the Sierra Nevada, San Jacinto, and other mountain ranges, this is one of the rarest amphibians in California. It is currently threatened by pesticide use, fungal diseases, and introduced fish species, which feed on the tadpoles. The frog is identified by a strange raspy call, which rises at the end.
- Butterflies: California lists nearly 20 endangered species of butterfly, including the Oregon silverspot butterfly, the lotis blue butterfly, the San Bruno elfin butterfly, and the monarch. Habitat loss is usually the most important reason for their decline.
Animals in California FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What animals are only found in California?
Several species of wild animals are common to California but found nowhere else. The Tule elk, which almost became extinct in the 19th century, is the smallest subspecies of elk in North America, growing no larger than 400 to 500 pounds. The California clapper rail, an endangered subspecies of the clapper rail, is native to Morro Bay and San Francisco Bay. The San Francisco garter snake, which sports a sleek red and blue strike running down the length of its body, is a subspecies of the common garter snake. The California newt, which sports a strange orange and brown body, is found throughout the state; it secretes a potentially dangerous toxin that can harm people. The golden trout, the state fish, was originally native to the Kern River, but it’s been introduced elsewhere.
What big animals live in California?
The state of California is home to black bears, wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and elk. Grizzly bears were once quite common in the state, but because they often attacked livestock, people had hunted all of them to death by the early 20th century.
Does California have deadly animals?
California is home to many species of venomous and stinging animals, including rattlesnakes, wasps, bees, spiders, and scorpions. While collectively they are responsible for causing a few deaths per year, most people will easily survive a dangerous encounter as long as they receive proper medical treatment. Larger predators such as black bears and mountain lions are responsible for a few attacks every year as well, but they will almost always ignore humans unless directly threatened.
Does California have a lot of wildlife?
Yes, the state of California has some of the most diverse wildlife in the entire country. Its large geographical size, diverse ecosystems, and large expanses of pristine land all combine to make it suitable for all kinds of wildlife. It’s estimated to have nearly 300 species of mammals, more than 600 birds, and more than 100 species of reptiles.