Last week, I discussed a big problem facing Americans: The list of official state reptiles was embarrassing and in desperate need of repair.
Most of the states had made poor choices, thereby bathing their citizens in shame and dishonor. Worse yet, nearly half of the states hadn’t even selected an official reptile.
So, like any normal reptile lover would, I took it upon myself to fix the problem.
I began by dissecting and reorganizing all of the duplicate selections, and then I praised those that had chosen wisely (I am still slow clapping for West Virginia) and taunted those that made especially embarrassing choices (Massachusetts should still be in its room, thinking about what it did).
That accomplished, I am going to set my sites on the 24 heretofore reptile-less states. Scroll all the way to the bottom for a comprehensive list.
There aren’t a whole lot of choices for Alaska, as only four reptiles inhabit the state. And by “inhabit the state,” I mean “are occasionally spotted in the state’s southern waters.”
At any rate, Alaska gets the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). Not only are these the largest living turtles (exceptional individuals may approach 1 ton in weight), they have the most terrifying throats Mother Nature has ever devised.
Seriously, Arkansas? You have an incredibly diverse collection of cool reptiles living inside your state borders, and yet you can’t pick one of them to be your official state reptile? As much as I hate to reward your apathy, I am compelled to give you one of my favorite snakes in the world, the western cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma).
Connecticut has several neat reptiles living within its borders, but because most of these have already been claimed by neighboring states, it gets the northern ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsi).
But keep your chin up, Connecticut, the ringneck snake is a remarkable creature that plays an important role in the leaf litter ecosystem. Ringnecks even possess a mild venom (they have an inefficient delivery mechanism, so they are generally regarded as harmless to humans).
After considerable internal deliberations, I gave Delaware the country’s smallest terrapin, the bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii). It’s true that the bog turtle only inhabits a small portion of the state (the entire species has a peculiar distribution pattern), but its status as a threatened species is a more important consideration.
If you think about it, the most important places in which to protect threatened species are those areas that lie at the boundaries of the animal’s range. So listen up, Deleware: You better do your best to protect these tiny turtles, lest you end up with an extirpated state reptile.
While a few lizards crawl around in modern Hawaii, most are of the introduced variety. One species that actually is/was native to the islands — the copper-striped blue-tailed skink (Emoia impar) — may or may not have been extirpated from the islands. It was formally declared extinct in 2013, but some dispute this claim.
Because these lizards may already be extinct within the state’s borders, Hawaii gets the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas).
Idaho gets the northern alligator lizard (Elgaria coerulea). In addition to being some of the country’s few lizards belonging to the family Anguidae, northern alligator lizards are also some of the only livebearing lizards native to the United States.
I’ll be honest – I gave Indiana the common map turtle (Graptemys geographica) because I couldn’t come up with anything better that wasn’t already claimed. They have some relatively cool snakes, but our list is already getting a little snake heavy (which is to be expected — there are more snakes native to the United States than either turtles or lizards).
Let this be a lesson, Indiana. A little gumption goes a long way in avoiding ho-hum selections. You could have had your choice of several more charismatic reptiles, but you just sat there (probably watching college hoops), and now I am doing it for you.
Iowa’s native reptile lineup is not particularly exciting, but the six-lined racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata) is an interesting creature. Although they are occasionally mistaken for skinks (Plestiodon spp.), racerunners actually hail from the Family Teiidae, which helps diversify our list.
The natural range of several southern and eastern reptiles ends near Kentucky. Pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus), for example, only extend into a few places within the state’s borders. However, others have managed to colonize most of the state. I picked one of these — the northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mockasen) — to be Kentucky’s new state reptile.
Despite its cool climate, Maine has a surprisingly diverse reptile fauna. Nevertheless, they have relatively few species that are both worthy of state reptile status and unclaimed by other states. I gave them the smooth green snake (Opheodrys vernalis), an adorable, insectivorous species.
Fox snakes are attractive constrictors native to the northern central United States. Formerly recognized as a single species, they are now regarded as two distinct species: the eastern fox snake (Pantherophis gloydi) and the western fox snake (Pantherophis vulpinus), which just became Minnesota’s new state reptile.
The sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus) inhabits a lot of the western United States, including Montana. The lizards aren’t particularly charismatic, but they are important components of western sagebrush habitats. Besides, I had to put some member of the genus Sceloporus on the list, given their importance as prey items for snakes, birds and small mammalian carnivores.
With their large, unblinking eyes and shelf-like supraocular scales, western coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum testaceus) look like something that crawled out of horror movie. And I mean that in the coolest way possible.
Not only are they among the fastest North American snakes, but these things may prowl for prey while holding their heads high off the ground. You can imagine how terrifying that’s gotta look to a prairie-dwelling lizard, who’s just trying to get through his day without becoming food.
However, by selecting them for Nebraska, I am bending my own rules again.
You see, while western coachwhips are found throughout the prairies, grasslands and agricultural areas of southwestern Nebraska, they are essentially absent from the other two-thirds of the state. No matter — I have dictatorial powers here that would make a North Korean dictator jealous, so Nebraska gets the speedy serpent.
New Hampshire gets the wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). This selection pleased me greatly — wood turtles are not only endearing, they are also of particular conservation concern (they are listed as endangered by the IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species) and they are found throughout most of the state. Win, win, win.
I tried to keep my personal feelings about the states and their most obnoxious representatives off the list, but I just had to do this.
You listening, Jersey? You get the stinkpot (Sternotherus odoratus).
What, too subtle?
I took the painted turtle away from several states in part one, but today, I am actually giving it to North Dakota. Painted turtles are an important and widespread turtle throughout the country, so they necessitate inclusion somewhere. North Dakota doesn’t have that many reptiles from which we can choose anyway, so the western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii) it is.
The western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) is one of only three freshwater turtles historically native to the west coast states and is currently listed as “critical” by Oregon’s sensitive species list. This one is a pretty open and shut case.
Given the importance the coal industry has played in Pennsylvania’s history, I thought about giving the state the coal skink (Plestiodon anthracinus), but I needed one of the small American rattlesnakes on the list, so that is what’s happening.
The eastern massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) is only native to the westernmost portions of Pennsylvania (they are listed as endangered in the state), but as they already seem to be taking actions to prevent the extirpation of the species, the choice works for me.
Massasaugas are fascinating little pit vipers, who overwinter in abandoned crayfish burrows and other holes in the ground. But here’s the really cool part: They look for holes with water in them. The water remains slightly warmer than the air temperatures during the winter, which allows these snakes to snooze away the winter while having a nice, long soak. In fact, they actually remain submerged for most of this time, only surfacing to breathe every once in a while.
I needed to have milksnakes represented on the list, and Rhode Island ended up being the best state for them. Accordingly, Rhode Island gets the gentle eastern milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum), which lives throughout much of the state.
I knew all along that one of the western states was going to get the western hognose (Heterodon nascicus), and it turns out that state is South Dakota. Enjoy your poop-smearing, hood-spreading, death-feigning snake — although they aren’t the most refined serpents in the world, they packed with antipredator awesomeness.
Utah lucks out and gets the western chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater). Despite looking like they could stand to lose a few pounds, chuckwallas are actually rather quick, and they will chase down the occasional insect (however, they typically consume flowers, leaves and fruit).
I had to have the snake-eating eastern king snake (Lampropeltis getula) represented on the list, and Virginia seems as good a place as any to claim it. Plus, it seems appropriate to pit Virgina and West Virginia — who selected the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) — against each other.
This one is pretty easy – the rubber boa (Charina bottae) is a perfect fit for Washington. The world’s most northerly member of the boa clade, rubber boas are much tinier than their tropical cousins, topping out at about 2 feet in total length.
While they may not be dripping with charisma (more than one keeper has called them “the most boring pet snake species in the world”), they help diversify the collection of snakes that make up our full list.
Sorry, Wisconsin. You are yet another victim of the I-need-species-X-on-the-list-and-I-have-to-put-it-somewhere syndrome. You get the cranky, yet incredibly interesting, spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera) — a turtle whose sex is determined by the animal’s genes, rather than — like most other turtles — their incubation temperature.
Enjoy, but watch your fingers.
Despite my repeated attempts, I wasn’t able to find a home for a few of the most iconic species in the country.
Most of the problems revolved around southeastern snakes or southwestern lizards. For example, I could not fit in the eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon courperi) or any of the legless lizards (Ophisaurus spp.) into our 50-state roster, nor could I find a place for Gila monsters (Heleoderma suspectum) or desert iguanas (Dipsosaurus dorsalis).
Another problem was the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii), which absolutely deserved a spot (it only lives in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast of North America), but I couldn’t find a good state for it.
Still, I managed to incorporate both of the country’s native tortoises, both of the native crocodilians and two sea turtle species into the list, as well as mixing in 20 snakes, 15 freshwater turtles (including box turtles) and 9 lizards.
All in all, I am happy with the way it turned out.
Thanks for reading along — be sure to share limitless praise and/or angry thoughts in the comments (I’m looking at you, New Jersey).
For posterity’s sake, here is the complete list: