California, the Golden State, is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, and it is no surprise that the state has designated interesting official animals to represent its unique identity. From the majestic grizzly bear to the fascinating desert tortoise, these state animals showcase the beauty and diversity of California’s wildlife.
Join us in discovering California’s fascinating official state animals and learn why they were chosen to represent the state.
What Is an Official Animal?
An official animal is a species or breed recognized and designated by a government or state as a symbol of its cultural, economic, historical, or ecological significance. These animals serve as ambassadors for their region and often represent the unique qualities and values of the area.
1. Reptile – Desert Tortoise
The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) inhabits deserts throughout northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States, particularly in California. Its endangered status has earned it protection under the law and played a significant role in implementing the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. This species has been the State Reptile of California since 1972.
- dome-shaped shell that ranges in color from gray to brown
- sturdy legs and a short, hooked beak
- can grow up to 15 inches long and weigh up to 51 pounds
- slow-moving and solitary
- spends the hottest months in burrows underground to regulate temperature
- feeds on a variety of plants and stores water in its body
- lifespan of 50-80 years in the wild
- Under the Endangered Species Act, this species is listed as Threatened
- plays a crucial role in the desert ecosystem as seed dispersers and burrow builders
- can live without access to surface water, as it obtains moisture from its food
- allows other desert animals in its burrows, including reptiles, mammals, and birds
- During the mating season, males can become quite aggressive, often engaging in battles with other males to win over a female
2. Amphibian – California Red-Legged Frog
The California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii) lives on the central coast and in the San Francisco Bay area. However, due to factors such as habitat destruction, the introduction of non-native species, and water pollution, this frog is now endangered. Conservation efforts are underway to preserve this species and protect its remaining habitats. In 2014, it officially became the state amphibian of California.
- medium-sized frog, growing up to 5 inches long
- bright red legs and underside, with spots on its back that vary in color and pattern
- smooth and moist skin, like most other frogs
- typically lives near slow-moving water sources such as streams, ponds, and marshes
- mostly active at night, feeding on insects and other small invertebrates
- breeds in the early spring and lays eggs in water
- declined in numbers due to habitat loss and the introduction of non-native species
- Threatened under the Endangered Species Act
- plays a vital role in the local ecosystem, serving as both predator and prey
- once a common species in the state, but its population has declined dramatically over the past century
- Mark Twain made the species famous in his short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
- known for its distinctive call, which sounds like a series of croaks and trills
3. Mammal – California Grizzly Bear
The California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus) is a subspecies of the brown bear that no longer exists. The California grizzly bear was named the state mammal of California in 1953 because it once was a common and iconic species in the state. However, it was hunted to extinction. It represents the state’s natural heritage and history.
This bear remains a significant symbol of the state to this day. Interestingly, California is the only state in the United States to feature an extinct animal on its state flag and seal.
- huge animal with a hump of muscle on its shoulders
- brown fur with lighter tips
- sharp claws used for digging and climbing
- As an omnivore, this bear fed on both plants and animals.
- solitary animal, except during breeding season
- marked its territory with urine, claw marks, and scat
- strong sense of smell, used for finding food and mates
- intelligent animal with a fantastic memory
- could run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour
- once inhabited the entire state, but is now extinct
- Females weighed less than half as much as males.
- last sighting in California was in the 1920s
4. Bird – California Quail
Also called the California Valley Quail, the California Quail (Callipepla californica) is a species of bird found in the state. This bird, known for its resourcefulness, makes its home in open areas throughout the state, particularly along the coast. This intriguing bird caught the attention of the Audubon Society, who saw fit to nominate it as the official state bird. In 1931, the law passed, and officials declared the California Quail as the state bird of California.
- plump bird with a round head and a short plume
- approximately 10 inches long
- females do not have the black facial markings that males have
- brown or black with white streaks, and a belly that exhibits a range of hues
- social bird that loves to spend life with families
- speed of 20km per hour
- usually feeds on the ground
- Males have a distinctive call that sounds like “chi-ca-go”
- resident of California and the southwest United States
- lives near oak woodlands and foothill forests
- omnivorous, eating seeds, insects, and small animals
- Males have a unique courtship ritual that involves puffing up their feathers and calling.
- Coveys often roost together at night for protection.
- In Native American cultures, the California Quail symbolizes good luck and prosperity.
5. Freshwater Fish – Golden Trout
The Golden Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) is native to California. Due to their stunning appearance and exclusive native status, officials named the golden trout California’s freshwater fish in 1947.
- iridescent golden-yellow to reddish color on the side with an olive-green back
- small, round spots on its upper body
- white or orange-tipped dorsal fin
- native to the high-altitude, cold-water streams of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains
- prefers clean, clear streams with rocky bottoms and a moderate current
- 8 inches long on average
- feeds on insects, small crustaceans, and smaller fish
- active during the day
- normally found in small schools
- named for its unique, striking coloration
- one of the rarest species of trout in the world
- critical to the health of Sierra Nevada aquatic ecosystems
- limited range and habitat make it vulnerable to environmental threats
6. Insect – California Dogface Butterfly
The California dogface butterfly (Zerene eurydice), also called the dog-head butterfly, was officially named the state insect of California in 1972 due to its unique and exclusive presence within the state. This species is native only to California and inhabits specific regions between the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges and north-central California to Baja California.
- distinctive shape resembling a dog’s face on the males’ forewings
- orange and black wings with small hairs on the body
- large eyes
- native to central California
- feeds on nectar from various plants, including wildflowers, mustards, and clovers
- average wingspan of 2 to 2.5 inches
- fast flier
- males perch on vegetation and await female mates
- females lay eggs on the leaves of their host plant
- named for its unique markings on the forewings
- limited range and habitat make it vulnerable to environmental threats
- significant contributor to California’s biodiversity
- supports numerous other species through pollination
7. Marine Fish – Garibaldi
It is illegal to possess a Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus), previously known as Catalina Goldfish. In 1995, the California Legislature banned the commercial collection of the Garibaldi and designated it the state marine fish. The Garibaldi represents California’s abundant and diverse marine life and is a reminder to raise awareness and preserve its species and habitat.
- easy to identify bright orange coloring
- rounded, disc-shaped body
- around 12 to 14 inches long
- native to the nearshore waters of southern and central California
- highly territorial in defending its nests and eggs
- usually found near rocky outcroppings and kelp beds
- primarily feeds on bottom-dwelling invertebrates and algae
- aggressive toward other fish and humans who enter their territory
- active during the day and retreats to protected spots at night
- named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian military and political leader
- distinctive coloration and striking appearance
- plays an important role in maintaining the ecological balance of nearshore waters
- enjoys protected status in California
8. Marine Mammal – Gray Whale
The gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) has been the state marine mammal of California since 1975 because of its significance to the state. Gray whales were hunted in California waters in the 19th century, and their populations declined drastically. However, they have since made a strong recovery and are now a common sight along the California coast during their annual migration. The best time to witness the gray whale migration along the California coast is from January to March.
- dark gray with white spots
- stocky build and can grow up to 39 feet in length
- Males are slightly smaller than females.
- migration is the longest of any mammal, traveling up to 10,000 miles annually
- feeds mostly on small crustaceans and amphipods
- playfully approaches boats and swims near shorelines
- swims along the California coast twice a year, once in the winter and again in the spring
- lives in tight-knit social groups known as pods
- known to breach (jump out of the water) and spy hop (rise partially out of the water)
- one of the few whale species that regularly comes close to shore
- sole surviving species in the baleen whale family Eschrichtiidae
- exhibits a behavior called “spyhopping,” where it swims close to boats and pokes its head up
9. Marine Reptile – Leatherback Sea Turtle
The leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) is also known as the lute turtle. The leatherback sea turtle was designated the state marine reptile of California in 1972 to raise awareness about the conservation of the species and to promote the protection of its habitats.
- largest sea turtle species
- can reach up to 6 feet long and weigh up to 1550 pounds
- dark gray or black, with a white or pink underbelly
- mainly feeds on jellyfish, fish, squid, and floating seaweed
- migrates long distances between feeding and breeding grounds
- usually solitary, but sometimes travels in groups
- can tolerate a wide range of temperatures
- can dive to depths of roughly 4,000 feet
- heart rate slows while diving to conserve energy
- shell structure helps to reduce buoyancy, allowing for deep dives
- listed as an endangered species due to threats from fishing, plastic pollution, and habitat loss
- can hold its breath and stay underwater for up to 85 minutes
- mating behavior involves large groups of males competing for the attention of females
- name comes from its leathery carapace (upper shell)
Honorable Mention: Dinosaur – Augustynolophus
The augustynolophus (Augustynolophus morrisi) was a plant-eating saurolophine hadrosaur dinosaur that scientists discovered in the Moreno Formation in California. This species lived during the late Maastrichtian era and is one of the last dinosaurs to exist before the catastrophic Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. In 2017, the state of California adopted a law naming augustynolophus its state dinosaur!
The goal of naming a state dinosaur was for Californians to become more interested in paleontology and science. Since augustynolophus’ fossils are only in California, it makes an excellent candidate for the state dinosaur.
- long, bony crest on its head
- about 26 feet long and weighed around three tons
- large, strong legs with webbed feet
- believed to have lived in shallow, coastal waters and spent time in the water and on land
- communicated through visual displays and vocalizations
- most likely resided near coastlines
- belonged to the hadrosaur family, also known as “duck-billed” dinosaurs
- lived in herds
- named after the late Californian paleontologist Jack Augustyn
- Fossils were first discovered in 1939
Summary of 9 Official State Animals of California
|1||Reptile – Desert Tortoise||Gopherus agassizii|
|2||Amphibian – California Red-legged Frog||Rana draytonii|
|3||Mammal – California Grizzly Bear||Ursus arctos californicus|
|4||Bird – California Quail||Callipepla californica|
|5||Freshwater Fish – Golden Trout||Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita|
|6||Insect – California Dogface Butterfly||Zerene eurydice|
|7||Marine Fish – Garibaldi||Hypsypops rubicundus|
|8||Marine Mammal – Gray Whale||Eschrichtius robustus|
|9||Marine Reptile – Leatherback Sea Turtle||Dermochelys coriacea|
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