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Every state in the United States has official animal symbols, but North Carolina takes it to the next level. Legislators in the Tar Heel State have named 14 different animals as official state symbols. But in a state with such a wide array of fauna, why not celebrate that diversity?
Here are North Carolina’s 14 official state animal symbols.
State Bird – Northern Cardinal
The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is the official state bird in seven states, more than any other bird. Along with North Carolina, the Northern Cardinal has been designated the official state bird in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.
North Carolina assigned the Northern Cardinal its official state status in 1943, making it the state’s first official animal symbol.
The North Carolina Bird Club conducted a statewide survey to ask North Carolinians which bird they preferred to become the official avian symbol of the state. More than 23,000 votes were cast for 26 different bird species. In the end, the Northern Cardinal won with around 5,000 votes. Legislators then made the designation official, noting the bird’s value in keeping the state’s farms and gardens free from weeds and insects.
Northern Cardinals can be found in North Carolina year-round. The males are vibrant red while the females are reddish brown. Both feature the same prominent crest, heavy bill, and dark black mask.
State Butterfly – Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
There are 48 states with official state insects. Only Iowa and Michigan are without state insect symbols. North Carolina actually has two. There is an official state insect (we’ll get to that below), but legislators also designated an official butterfly of the state.
The movement to give the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) official state status was launched by one North Carolina citizen. Frances Parnell of Wilmington started the push. Various garden clubs in the state got behind it. The movement received a big boost when the North Carolina Wildlife Federation endorsed it. The payoff came when the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail received its designation as North Carolina’s state butterfly on June 15, 2012.
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail was selected, at least in part, because it can be found in all of North Carolina’s 100 counties. The butterfly is instantly recognizable with its black and yellow striped pattern, and distinctive tails on the hind wings. It is also one of the largest butterflies in North America, with a wingspan of up to six inches. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is larger than its counterpart, the Western Tiger Swallowtail, which has a wingspan of around four inches.
Twenty-five other states have either official state butterflies or a butterfly as their official state insect. Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, and South Carolina join North Carolina in designating the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail their official state butterfly. It is also the state insect of Virginia.
State Dog – Plott Hound
Only 13 states have officially designated state dogs. Maryland became the first when it named the Chesapeake Bay retriever as its state dog in 1964. The dog is named after the famous bay region in the state and was therefore designated as the first-ever state dog in the United States.
Twelve other states have since followed suit, including North Carolina. The Plott Hound (Canis lupus) was designated as North Carolina’s official state dog in 1989.
The Plott Hound is a large scent hound that was bred in North Carolina by George (Johannes) Plott. He brought five Hanover hounds from his home in Germany. The Hanover hound was bred for boar hunting. The breed was refined in North Carolina’s Plott Balsam mountains (also named for the Plott family) to hunt bears and other big game.
Today, the Plott Hound is an athletic breed that weighs 50-60 pounds when fully grown. This dog is great for owners who are on the go. The Plott Hound has energy to burn and needs daily exercise. The breed is loyal and is great with older children.
The Plott Hound was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 2006 and first appeared at the Westminster Show in 2008.
State Fossil – Megalodon Tooth
The state fossil of North Carolina recognizes an animal that hunted the waters of North Carolina long before human inhabitants arrived: the megalodon (Otodus megalodon)
The megalodon was the largest shark to ever live. Estimates suggest the shark measured up to 50 feet long and weighed 100,000 pounds! That is roughly more than 100 times the body mass of a modern great white shark. It is impossible to be precise regarding these measurements, though. Sharks have cartilaginous skeletons. With no bones to fossilize, the only fossil record we have of the megalodon is its teeth.
While it is certainly not an everyday occurrence, megalodon teeth are one of the more common fossil finds on some of North Carolina’s shores. Sharks shed their teeth throughout their lives. A single shark could lose as many as 40,000 teeth in its lifetime, any one of which could be buried in sediment and eventually fossilize. This is why megalodon teeth are found regularly throughout the southeastern United States. It also led North Carolina legislators to designate the megalodon tooth as the state’s official fossil in 2013.
Megalodon teeth average from three to five inches long, but teeth measuring up to seven inches have been found, including a 7.25 megalodon tooth found in neighboring South Carolina. That’s more than three inches bigger than modern shark teeth. The megalodon had five rows of these serrated teeth. Researchers estimate that it had a bite force five times greater than a Tyrannosaurus Rex and ten times greater than a modern great white shark. The megalodon could bite a whale in two with just one chomp!
Megalodon teeth have been found on every continent on earth except Antarctica. This sea monster that stalked oceans all over the globe is quite possibly the fiercest apex predator the world has ever known.
State Freshwater Fish – Southern Appalachian Brook Trout
The official freshwater fish of North Carolina is the only native freshwater trout in the state: the southern Appalachian brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). The full name is a bit of a mouthful, though, so you are likely to hear anglers refer to them as “brookies,” “specks,” or “speckles” because of their speckled appearance.
This trout is not the same as brook trout found in other parts of the U.S. It is a unique species that is only found in the mountains of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Rainbow trout (Onchorhynchus mykiss) and brown trout (Salmo trutta) were added to streams within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the early 1900s and again in the 1950s in an attempt to improve the park’s fisheries. What officials failed to realize was how the introduction of these non-native trout species would negatively impact the indigenous southern Appalachian brook trout. Restoration efforts are underway to help the park’s native trout thrive.
In the official legislation making this trout North Carolina’s official freshwater fish, lawmakers noted the fish’s 400 sustained populations within North Carolina, more than any other state. The legislation also noted the beautiful, wild range where the fish is found and how this trout is interwoven with the culture of western North Carolina.
State Frog – Pine Barrens Treefrog
While 27 states have officially designated state amphibians, only two honor multiple animals. Both chose to honor a frog and a salamander as official symbols. One of those states is Ohio, which designated the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and the American bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) as official state symbols. The other is North Carolina. The state salamander is listed below. The official frog of North Carolina is the Pine Barrens Treefrog (Hyla andersonii).
The frog is green with a white-bordered lavender stripe down the sides of its body. There is also bright orange coloration on the underside of its legs.
The Pine Barren treefrog is found in the south-central part of North Carolina. It dwells in pine forests and sandhills. It is seldom seen for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is nocturnal. Secondly, the population is declining due to the destruction of its habitat.
Rachel Hopkins, a teenager from Raleigh, spurred the movement to give the treefrog its official state designation to raise awareness of the importance of amphibian conservation. State lawmakers heard her voice and enacted the legislation in 2013.
State Horse – Colonial Spanish Mustang
After numerous requests from the Corolla Wild Horse Fund and a group of persistent students from Shawboro Elementary School in Currituck County, the North Carolina General Assembly named the Colonial Spanish Mustang (Equus ferus caballus) the official horse of the state on June 3, 2010.
These wild horses roam North Carolina’s Outer Banks. They are direct descendants of the horses brought by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. The Colonial Spanish Mustang has been dubbed America’s first horse.
This move by lawmakers was not without controversy. Some view these horses as a nuisance, even an invasive species. However, legislators noted that these horses “have played a significant role in the history and culture of North Carolina’s coastal area for hundreds of years.”
The Colonial Spanish Mustang is a critically endangered species. Attempts are being made to protect these horses, such as the Corolla Wild Horses Protection Act.
State Insect – Honey Bee
The honey bee (Apis spp.) was named the official state insect of North Carolina on March 5, 1973. These bees are critical to the pollination of cash crops in the state such as fruits, vegetables, alfalfa, and cotton.
Honey bee populations have declined in recent decades due to disease, habitat loss, and pesticide exposure. North Carolina’s recognition of the honey bee as its official state insect was meant to raise awareness of the bee’s importance. Other efforts have also been made in the state to protect the honey bee as well as to promote beekeeping, such as the North Carolina Bee and Honey Act of 1977.
North Carolina is not alone in its official recognition of this vital insect. The honey bee has been given official status in 17 states, the most of any insect.
State Mammal – Eastern Gray Squirrel
The state mammal and the official state animal symbol of North Carolina is the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). The original bill was introduced in the North Carolina House by Representative Basil Barr of Ashe County. Rep. Barr surveyed schoolchildren in the state and they chose the eastern gray squirrel as North Carolina’s official mammal. The state already had an official bird, tree, flower, and shell.
In the bill, Rep. Barr called the eastern gray squirrel “courageous and thrifty.” The bill was passed and the declaration become official on June 30, 1969.
There are over two million eastern gray squirrels in the wild. It’s estimated that there are as many as 20 eastern gray squirrels per acre of forest in the eastern United States. The squirrel can be found in all of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
State Marsupial – Virginia Opossum
North Carolina technically has two state mammals. One is the eastern gray squirrel. The other is the state marsupial: the Virginia oppossum (Didelphis virginiana). The opossum is both a mammal and a marsupial.
North Carolina lawmakers gave the Virginia opossum its designation as the state’s official marsupial in 2013. This opossum is the only native marsupial in the United States. Its relative, the southern opossum (Didelphis marsupialis), is found in southern Mexico, as well as in Central and South America.
The Virginia opossum is found primarily in the eastern United States and proliferates throughout North Carolina. The animal is misunderstood and maligned by many people. It’s commonly believed opossums carry rabies. While any mammal can contract rabies, the opossum is not a common rabies carrier due to its unusually low body temperature.
And, in case you’re wondering, “opossum” is indeed the correct spelling. Many spell it without the first “o,” but that is incorrect. The possum is actually a different marsupial native to New Guinea and Australia.
State Reptile – Eastern Box Turtle
The eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) can be found in every part of North Carolina except the Outer Banks. It is the only terrestrial turtle found in North Carolina. As such, it was honored as the official reptile of the state in 1979.
The eastern box turtle’s name comes from its range within the eastern U.S. and its ability to completely “box up” within its shell if it senses danger. The name does not mean it is wise to box up the turtle and take it home as a pet! The turtle’s numbers are declining, and removing a turtle from the wild only exacerbates the problem.
The eastern box turtle is classified as a Near Threatened species. It is listed as a priority species in the North Carolina Wildlife Action Plan.
The eastern box turtle’s U.S. range stretches from Maine to Florida in the east and from Michigan to Alabama in the west. The turtle is also the state reptile of Tennessee. Its close relative, the ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata), is the state reptile of Kansas and Nebraska.
State Salamander – Marbled Salamander
Rachel Hopkins, who pushed for the recognition of the Pine Barren treefrog, also advocated for the recognition of the marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum) as North Carolina’s state salamander. The salamander received its official status from the state legislature at the same time as the treefrog.
This salamander species can be recognized by its dark black color “marbled” with light brown or gray crossbands. It is a small salamander, only growing to around four inches long at maturity.
The marbled salamander can be found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is known as the “Salamander Capital of the World.” A new salamander species, the 31st in the park, was discovered in 2022.
The marbled salamander is not only found within the confines of the National Park but also throughout the state of North Carolina. It can be found in damp damp woodlands and near ponds and streams.
Marbled salamanders are popular pets, but they should only be acquired from a licensed and reputable retailer. Never take a salamander from the wild as a pet!
State Saltwater Fish – Channel Bass
The channel bass (Sciaenops ocellatus) is also known as the red drum, spottail bass, redfish, puppy drum, and sometimes it is just known as red. Whatever name you prefer, this fish was named the state saltwater fish of North Carolina in 1971.
These fish proliferate the coastal waters of the state and are a popular target for saltwater anglers. The channel bass grows to an average size of 20-30 pounds, but it’s not uncommon for them to exceed 50 pounds. In fact, the world record channel bass was caught in North Carolina waters. David Deuel landed a monster 94-pound 2-ounce channel bass off of Hatteras Island on November 7, 1984!
This premier saltwater gamefish is key to North Carolina’s fishing and tourism economies and therefore was given its rightful place as an official animal symbol of the state.
State Shell – Scotch Bonnet
North Carolina was the first state to adopt an official seashell symbol, naming the Scotch Bonnet as the state’s official shell in 1965.
In its marine home, the shell is inhabited by a member of the helmet family (Phalium granulatum). These are sea snails whose shells are often decorative and highly sought after by conchologists.
The Scotch bonnet’s shell features a beautiful design of small orange squares, giving it a plaid appearance. The look is similar to a Scottish tartan, hence the name.
The Scotch bonnet is highly prized, but not often found, by North Carolina shell collectors. If you do find one along a North Carolina beach, you are certainly among the luckiest of all shell hunters in the Tar Heel state!