As with every other state in the United States, Arkansas legislators have chosen various symbols to represent their state. Among many other examples, the state has an official gem (diamond), musical instrument (fiddle), grain (rice), beverage (milk), and even an official cooking vessel (Dutch oven). Along with these symbols, Arkansas lawmakers have selected five animals as official representatives of their state. Here is a look at each of these five animals and why they were chosen as official symbols of The Natural State.
1. State Bird: Northern Mockingbird
There are 14 species of mockingbirds. The northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is the only one commonly found in North America. The rest reside further south in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.
Like other mockingbirds, the northern mockingbird can mimic other animals. This mimicry is not confined to other birds, though. The northern mockingbird can mimic animals such as frogs and insects. They can even mimic manmade sounds, such as a telephone!
The songs and sounds of the northern mockingbird number in the hundreds. The bird’s scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, is Latin for “many-tongued mimic.” This video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives a very small sample of the vocalizations of the northern mockingbird.
When the northern mockingbird was proposed as the official state bird of Arkansas, many initially scoffed at the idea. The bird was hardly unique to Arkansas. These birds are found throughout much of the United States. Plus, the northern mockingbird had already been selected as the state bird of both Texas and Florida in 1927. It would also later become the state bird of Mississippi in 1944. Many Arkansas lawmakers were reticent to designate this bird as the first official animal symbol of their state.
A State Bird at Long Last
But the official state motto of Arkansas seemed to win the day: Regnat Populus, which is Latin for “the people rule.” The people of Arkansas pushed for the northern mockingbird’s official state status, and their elected officials eventually listened.
Mockingbirds are omnivores that eat insects and weed seeds, both beneficial to farmers and gardeners. The Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs championed this and other benefits of the bird with their state’s lawmakers. This pressure caused many elected officials to stop “mocking” the idea of the mockingbird as their official state bird. Instead, the idea was accepted, and the bill was passed. The northern mockingbird was named the official state bird of Arkansas in 1929.
2. State Butterfly: Diana Fritillary Butterfly
Representative John Paul Wells of Logan County introduced legislation to make the butterfly an official state symbol. The bill noted the butterfly’s beauty, educational importance, and impact on state tourism. The legislation was passed, and the Diana fritillary butterfly became the state butterfly of Arkansas on February 28, 2007.
The Diana fritillary (often known simply as the Diana) is a large butterfly with a wingspan of 3½-4½ inches. It is among the most stunning of the 134 butterfly species of butterflies found in Arkansas. The butterfly was named after Diana, the Roman goddess of light and life. Diana later became known as the goddess of the moon and hunting, as well as a protector of women.
This butterfly has been documented in 27 of Arkansas’ 75 counties. It is often found in higher elevations, including Mount Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas.
Male and Female Dianas
The Diana is a sexually dimorphic butterfly. Males feature a black color at their base with orange outer portions. Females are larger than males and feature a very different color pattern of black with iridescent blue outer colors.
The butterfly’s numbers have declined despite having no official threatened or endangered status. Land clearance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reduced the butterfly’s range. The insect was historically found in Indiana, Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, but it has largely disappeared from those areas. Along with Arkansas, the butterfly’s current range includes Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
3. State Dinosaur: Arkansaurus Fridayi
Finding fossils in Arkansas is a rarity. Fossils are often poorly preserved underneath the state’s soil. In fact, the first verified fossil discovery in the state did not occur until 1972. That is when the bones of a prehistoric theropod dinosaur that bore at least some resemblance to a modern-day ostrich were found on property owned by Joe Friday (hence the dinosaur’s name). The bones were found in the southwestern part of Arkansas in Early Cretaceous age rocks from approximately 100 to 146 million years ago.
Those bones were sent to James Harrison Quinn, professor of paleontology and stratigraphy at the University of Arkansas. Dr. Quinn cleaned the bones and filled in the missing pieces to complete the skeletal foot of this dinosaur. He also gave the dinosaur its official name, Arkansaurus fridayi. Dr. Quinn published the data in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology along with paleontologist Rebecca Hunt-Foster.
The Arkansaurus fridayi was roughly the same size (or just a bit larger) as a modern ostrich but had a long tail and clawed fingers. It is also theorized that this dinosaur had teeth, while later ostrich-mimics were toothless. It was likely covered in shaggy hairlike feathers.
One Student’s Mission
Mason Oury, a high school student from Fayetteville, created a campaign to name Arkansaurus fridayi as the official dinosaur of Arkansas. It was, after all, the first fossil ever discovered in the state. Oury’s efforts included a website, podcast, and social media. His goal, which began in 2013, was realized when Governor Asa Hutchinson signed the resolution in 2017. This animal may have lived well over 100 million years ago, but it now has an official place right next to Arkansas’ four modern state animals.
4. State Insect: Honey Bee
The honey bee (Apis mellifera) was named the state insect of Arkansas in 1973. Arkansas is hardly alone in this designation, though. The honey bee has been given official status in 17 states, the most of any other insect by a wide margin.
In addition to Arkansas, the honey bee has been named the official state insect in Georgia (along with the tiger swallowtail butterfly), Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi (along with the spicebush swallowtail butterfly), Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma (along with the black swallowtail butterfly), South Dakota, Tennessee (the honey bee is the official state agricultural insect), Utah, Vermont (along with the monarch butterfly), West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Such widespread recognition is appropriate given our reliance on this pollinator. Honey bees pollinate many fruits, vegetables, and nuts that are human dietary staples.
Albert Collier, a representative of Jackson County, proposed the legislation to officially recognize the honey bee as Arkansas’ state insect. He cited the bee’s importance in pollination, as well as the insect’s values of perseverance and hard work.
While the honey bee was named the state insect in 1973, Arkansas’ recognition of the bee’s importance dates back to its very origins as a state. When Arkansas joined the Union in 1836, a beehive was part of the state seal and remains so to this day.
5. State Mammal: White-Tail Deer
Along with Arkansas, the white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is also the official state mammal or animal in nine other states: Georgia (along with the right whale), Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. It is also the wildlife symbol of Wisconsin and the official game animal of Oklahoma. The white-tail deer is the most common state animal/mammal in the United States.
The Arkansas deer population is healthy, with white tails found in every county within the state. Close to a million deer live within the state’s borders. This wasn’t always the case, though.
Indigenous peoples relied heavily on the deer. They used every part of the animal, including the meat, hide, and antlers. The arrival of settlers put more pressure on the deer population. White-tail deer were hunted with no limits or restrictions. The first legal deer hunting season was not enacted until 1916. By then, much damage had already been done. By the 1930s, only a few hundred deer remained in the state. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) began purchasing deer from other states in an attempt to rebuild the state’s population. The AGFC would later redistribute herds in the state to improve population density and reproductive viability. Thanks to these conservation efforts, the deer population is booming once again in The Natural State.
Managing the Arkansas Deer Population
The white-tail deer is the most common deer species in the world. These deer are vital parts of their native ecosystems, such as Arkansas. Along with human hunters, white-tail deer are a necessary food source for predators in Arkansas, such as black bears, bobcats, and coyotes. Without an ample supply of deer, these predators would encroach on human population centers. No one wins in that scenario.
Along with feeding Arkansas’ natural predators, white-tail deer provide quite an economic boost to the state. Over 100,000 deer are harvested by Arkansas hunters each year. Around 6,000 Arkansas jobs are directly dependent on the deer hunting industry. Hunting pumps around $339 million into the state economy each year, much of which is from deer hunters.
While white-tail deer were once severely threatened in Arkansas, hunting is now needed to keep the deer population at a manageable level. Deer overpopulation puts a strain on both the ecosystem and the economy. For instance, Arkansas has around 22,000 deer-related traffic accidents yearly. Without a well-regulated deer season, that number would surely be much higher.
The white-tail deer is a conservation success story and vital to the Arkansas ecosystem and economy. It was a well-deserved honor when Governor Jim Guy Tucker signed legislation on April 5, 1993, naming the white-tail deer as the official state mammal of Arkansas.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/cmcneill17
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