A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a great piece by Nicholas Lund, examining the official bird of each state. I thoroughly enjoyed Lund’s
hit piece on cardinals take on the subject, even if he was objectively wrong on some of the finer points (to wit: mockingbirds are, in fact, awesome).
Having read it, I couldn’t help but agree with the basic thrust of the article: Most of the states made horrible selections. My interest piqued, I began wondering what the list of state reptiles looked like.
It wasn’t pretty.
While a few states got it right, the list is full of terrible choices. Most make little sense, ignore better options and generally fall flat. So, I am changing them.
Who elected me? Your mom did, tough guy. Don’t worry about me, just shut up and learn your new state reptile.
Twenty-four of the states could not even be bothered to pick one (and before you ask, yes, every state is home to a non-avian reptile for at least some portion of the year. Nobody gets off by complaining they do not have a native reptile).
Don’t worry, I will be making unilateral, binding declarations for these slackers too. But today, we are going to start by fixing the problems that already exist.
Ideally, our reptilian ambassadors should be charismatic, geographically relevant and ecologically important. Species of particular conservation concern are especially attractive choices, as official recognition equals increased awareness.
It’s also important, I think, to keep the big picture in mind. The individual species should not only make sense for their state, but they must make sense as a part of the nation-wide collection.
We don’t, for example, want 47 states to pick a rattlesnake and three to pick box turtles. Nor do we want to leave out any icons.
It gets a bit tricky.
Though it would seem obvious, every state should have a unique species. Fifty states means 50 different reptiles. But apparently, several states found this concept too creatively challenging.
I am fixing this too.
For starters, California and Nevada both selected the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) as their state reptile. The tortoise itself isn’t a terrible choice; it’s mildly charismatic, important to the local ecosystems and listed as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species. But, only one state can have it.
I am giving it to Nevada.
To be clear — this decision is intended to shame and penalize California, who completely dropped the ball. Apparently, they forgot all about the San Francisco garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia), which is not only endangered, but also named after one of the state’s cities.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, three different states – Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi – all selected the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) as their official reptile.
All three states can make a reasonable case for the animal, but only one can have it, so here goes: Being the species’ namesake, Mississippi keeps the gator. Louisiana gets the vulnerable alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii).
I pretty much have to give Florida the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), as it is the only state in which the species is native.
Then there’s Tennessee, who is trying to sneak the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) away from North Carolina.
Sorry, Tennessee, this one isn’t even close. North Carolina picked the species way back in 1979, while you waited around until 1995 to declare your love for the species. They keep their turtle. Not that you deserve it, but you get the gray rat snake (Pantherophis spiloides).
Vermont, Michigan, Illinois and Colorado all decided that the ubiquitous and boring painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) was good enough to share. They were all incorrect.
Vermont now gets the adorable and endangered spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), while Michigan gets the wetland-stalking copperbelly water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta), which is endangered in the state.
Colorado gets their namesake rattlesnake, the Colorado sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes laterorepens), while Illinois gets the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus).
Now that we have dealt with the duplicates, I can get all judgy.
Starting with the good, New Mexico, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and West Virginia knocked it out of the park. They all chose species with special relevance to their geographic region and most chose animals that are experiencing population declines. South Carolina, Texas and New York also did pretty well for themselves.
Four of these states even picked animals named after their state: New Mexico chose the New Mexico whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus neomexicanus), Arizona picked the Arizona ridge-nosed rattler (Crotalus willardi willardi), Texas went with the blood-squirting Texas horned lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum) and Alabama picked the endemic and endangered Alabama red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys alabamensis).
West Virginia gets an emphatic slow clap for stepping up to the plate and picking the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).
Timber rattlesnakes are about as cool as it gets; they perfectly embody the rugged Appalachian country in which they lurk. I will go on for days about them, so let’s skip to the end and say that West Virginia wins.
Come on, just look at this thing:
My home state of Georgia picked the ecosystem-engineering gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). This is a hard choice to argue with, but it means I don’t have a place to put the federally listed eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi).
New York chose the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), which is not particularly rare, but it is a solid pick. It is one of the few reptiles that inhabits Central Park, so there’s that.
South Carolina originally chose the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), which is a solid selection. However, I want somebody to get the eastern diamondback (Crotalus adamantaeus), and I am running out of options, so that’s South Carolina’s new state reptile. Finding a enough homes for all the cool critters present in the southeastern and southwestern states is tough.
As for the bad, Ohio and Massachusetts made the worst selections.
Ohio selected the over-caffeinated tweaker of the snake world, the northern black racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor), while Massachusetts literally picked a generic garter snake (Thamnophis sp.).
Ohio now has the Lake Erie water snake (Nerodia sipedon insularum). Given the species’ restricted geographic range and habit of eating invasive gobies, they should have already made this obvious selection. Massachusetts, you get the Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) – a rare, threatened species.
Most of the others were neither terrible nor stellar.
In addition to the aforementioned sillyness with the eastern box turtle, Missouri and Kansas both picked a box turtle species as well. Box turtles are kinda nifty, but I can only justify two on the total list.
Accordingly, Missouri is keeping their tree-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), while Kansas is trading in their ornate box turtle (Terrapene ornata) for the Great Plains skink (Plestiodon obsoletus).
Maryland went with the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), which isn’t a horrible choice; it inhabits a different ecosystem than most other “freshwater” turtles and seems culturally relevant to the state. Wyoming picked the mountain short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi), but, as Texas already has a horned lizard, Wyoming now gets the bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi).
I have to give Oklahoma credit for being the first state to designate an official reptile, as well as picking a pretty decent species: the eastern collared lizard (Crotophytus collaris).
Finally, we have a reasonably good list for 26 of the states. Check back in a few days when I will take on the 24 states with no official reptile. In the meantime, why don’t you follow me on twitter or sign up for the mailing list (click the link in the upper right corner).
Just for the record, here’s the list so far:
If you are keeping score, we now have two tortoises, eight freshwater turtles (which includes both the diamondback terrapin and the three-toed box turtle), two crocodilians, five lizards and nine snakes (four of which are rattlesnakes).