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State Symbols and Icons: Animals and Insects

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Like every state, South Carolina is crawling with critters on land and in water. But there are those creatures who, by virtue of cuteness, usefulness or widespread interest, have burrowed their way into our hearts. These are the ones spotlighted through legislation as official symbols and icons of South Carolina.

Establishing state symbols first enjoyed widespread popularity in the late 1900s with the adoption of state agricultural and wildlife symbols. Before that, it was customary to choose a symbol and flag upon achieving statehood. In 1911, South Carolina was one of the first states to establish the tradition of legislative designations, and other states soon followed.

Today, South Carolina has 44 official state symbols and icons established via legislative acts. Of those, a whopping 14 are dedicated to animals and insects. Take a closer look at them in this lineup of official South Carolina critters.

State Amphibian - Spotted Salamander
It took a spirited campaign undertaken by a class of third-graders to win this brightly spotted salamander the State Amphibian designation. Spartanburg’s Woodlands Heights Elementary School was rightly proud of their students for leading the charge to get the job done. Admired for its double rows of yellow dots, the steely gray spotted salamander has held the title since 1999. It is indigenous to South Carolina and found across the state, particularly in forests.

State Animal - White-tailed Deer
They can leap tall fences in a single bound and run faster than a speeding bullet—well, not quite. But at running speeds of up to 40 mph, it seems that way. The white-tailed deer has been the South Carolina State Animal since 1972. Graceful and strong, these animals have a tail with a white underside that is flashed as a danger warning. They forage on vegetation and are a favorite prey among the hunting crowd. But many lovers of these deer consider them more of a “spirit animal,” a soulful creature to be appreciated as an integral part of South Carolina’s natural beauty.

State Bird - Carolina Wren
The Carolina wren is a usurper of sorts. While it was named state bird in 1948, it displaced the mockingbird, which had held the spot for six years. But long before the mockingbird took the title, the Carolina wren was considered the unofficial state bird. Promoting the state symbol adoption of birds was a common practice of the Federated Women’s Clubs. The SC branch began lobbying for the Carolina Wren in 1930 and gave it an unofficial designation until 1939. That’s when, much to the chagrin of the women’s club, the SC legislature selected the mockingbird as the official designee. It took nine years, but eventually, the women had their way. The mockingbird got a figurative boot and the Carolina wren took its place with approval from legislators. It has ruled the roost as the SC State Bird ever since.

State Butterfly - Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly
The buttery-winged tiger swallowtail makes a pretty representative as the South Carolina State Butterfly. Officially designated in 1994, it comes in two colors, depending on the gender. Males have dark “tiger” stripes on their wings, while females have bluish wings and no stripes. The butterfly was chosen for its familiar presence in South Carolina, where it is often spotted in woods, along rivers, streams and swamps, and just generally flitting about in backyard flower gardens. English artist Mark Catesby is said to have painted the tiger swallowtail in 1725 in South Carolina, which gives the insect a place of honor in state history.

State Dog - Boykin Spaniel
South Carolina’s favorite canine friend and hunting companion, the Boykin spaniel, achieved official top dog status in 1985. The breed was born of the efforts of South Carolinians who bred the dog specifically for hunters. Named for Lemuel Whitaker Boykin, a Camden hunter and breeder who developed the breed in the early 1900s, Boykin spaniels are especially skilled at hunting waterfowl and other birds. They first demonstrated their impressive prowess in the Wateree River Swamp, but it wasn’t long before hunters everywhere recognized their talents. Now, the SC state dog is appreciated nationwide. In 1984, Gov. Richard Riley designated September 1—the first day of the state’s dove hunting season—as Boykin Spaniel Day in South Carolina. You can learn more about the state dog through an exhibit, “Little Brown Dog,” at the Camden Museum and Archives

State Fish - Striped Bass
Prized by anglers across the state, the striped bass became the official South Carolina fish in 1972. Abundant in most all our major reservoirs, “stripers” can weigh up to 40 pounds and are known to put up a good fight—an attractive challenge for game fishermen and fisherwomen. Each year, the Santee Cooper lakes draw crowds of anglers on the hunt for striped bass. Spring on the lakes is heralded by the Striped Bass Festival, a day-long celebration of striper love with fishing tournaments, pageants and other events carried out amongst the glorious beauty of blooming azaleas, wisteria and tulips. 

State Wild Game Bird - Wild Turkey
And you thought it was just a bourbon. The wild turkey is honored in South Carolina as the official State Wild Game Bird, a designation it has held since 1976. This bird is indigenous to the United States and was nearly extinct in the early 1900s. Efforts of conservation groups turned that around, though, and the wild bird made a stunning comeback nationwide. The South Carolina chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation helps ensure the state population of the bird remains robust. Wild turkeys reach impressive sizes, growing 4 feet in height and weights in excess of 20 pounds. It is not unusual to see them gathered roadside or find a proud tom preening for the ladies out in rural springtime fields.

State Heritage Horse - Marsh Tacky
The official state heritage horse, so named in 2010, holds a special place in South Carolina history. Native to the Palmetto State, the Marsh Tacky is an uncanny breed, a small colonial horse bred from horses brought here by Spanish settlers. Its ability to manage our lowland swamps during the Revolutionary War enabled General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion to outsmart the British who hounded him and his band of men. Thought to be extinct as recently as the 1990s, the critically endangered Marsh Tacky is receiving special treatment from conservation groups like the South Carolina Marsh Tacky Association, which, in addition to advocating for the breed, hosts races and other events. You can visit the headquarters of the Daufuskie Marsh Tacky Society on Daufuskie Island, where the horses are bred and protected. For an unforgettable experience, arrange to take a guided trail ride on a Marsh Tacky or learn more about this beautiful creature with a Marsh Tacky History Tour. 

State Heritage Work Animal – Mule
Call it stubborn, but South Carolina’s undying love for this hard-working, delightful animal meant it was no contest when selecting the state’s heritage work animal in 2010. The sterile offspring of mares and male donkeys, mules are special for many reasons. Since 1981, the South Carolina Donkey and Mule Association was formed just for the purpose of showcasing the amazing tenacity, patience and friendliness of these long-eared animals. Check out their website for sponsored events and opportunities to go for a ride. 

State Insect - Carolina Mantis
The Carolina mantis, or praying mantis, is a hard-working insect that earned its title in 1988. The official state insect plays an important part in controlling insects that threaten our agriculture. Found across South Carolina, the graceful mantis is a little more than 2 inches in length and ranges in color from earthy browns and grays to a brighter yellow and green. Larger mantises are likely an invasive Chinese species and not to be confused with our highly useful official insect.

State Marine Mammal - Bottlenose Dolphin
The intelligent, playful bottlenose dolphin has been the official state marine mammal since 2009. They are commonly seen frolicking in the waters just off South Carolina beaches. These fascinating animals are distinguished from most bottlenose dolphins in other areas because they “strand feed,” a strategy by which the mammals (sometimes in groups) rush the mudflats for stranded fish during low tide in marshes and tidal creeks. See them up close by taking a dolphin tour. You can do so just about anywhere along the SC coast, including Hilton Head IslandMyrtle Beach and Charleston

State Migratory Marine Mammal - Northern Right Whale
The majestic Northern Right Whale is the official migratory marine mammal of South Carolina. Designated in 2009, this magnificent mammal breeds and calves off the state’s coastline. They can grow to 50 feet in length and weigh about 120,000 pounds. The rare whales, of which only a few hundred remain, are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Their 1,000-mile migration typically happens in early December and takes the mammals from Nova Scotia and New England to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida where they calve. Conservation groups hope that protections and increased awareness will result in more births and eventual restoration of the Northern Right Whale population.

State Reptile - Loggerhead Sea Turtle
South Carolina’s love affair with the loggerhead sea turtle is reflected in its 1988 designation as the state reptile. These ancient creatures, which can exceed 200 pounds, undertake a lengthy migration. Home to some of the nation’s most environmentally pleasing sea turtle nesting grounds, South Carolina is somewhat of a paradise for the loggerhead. Though threatened with extinction because of habitat destruction, the loggerhead sea turtle is seeing a resurgence thanks to a network of South Carolina environmental agencies like S.C.U.T.E. (South Carolina United Turtle Enthusiasts), which recruits volunteers to help educate the public and protect turtle nesting zones, and the South Carolina Aquarium, with its sea turtle hospital for the treatment of injured or sick sea turtles. The SC Department of Natural Resources also has a marine turtle rescue conservation program with more than 20 teams of concerned individuals working to protect the turtles and their nesting habitat. To assist with the effort, contact any of those groups. 

State Spider - Carolina Wolf Spider
Arachnophobes, skip on by this one. Otherwise, say “hello” to South Carolina’s official eight-legged friend: the Carolina wolf spider. Since 2000, this hairy little bugger (named the state spider thanks to efforts of third-graders at Sheridan Elementary School in Orangeburg) is the largest wolf spider in North America, growing to about 3 to 4 inches in size. (Isn’t that cute?) They tend to flee from humans and are not inclined to bite, though they sometimes do if they feel threatened. Their venom is not dangerous to humans, however. (What a relief, right?) They hunt their prey, usually at night, rather than spinning webs to capture them. You can identify them by their grayish-brown body with a dark stripe centered on the abdomen, or by shining a flashlight at them. Seems their eyes (all eight of them) are highly efficient reflectors of light. (Okay. Go ahead and scream …)

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.