If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, America's national animal would be the turkey, an animal he called "a true original Native of America."
And in his defense, there's certainly no shortage of turkeys to go around, which can't be said about a handful of countries around the globe with national animals that are decidedly less common — some even extinct. Other countries proudly boast emblematic critters that are straight-out bizarre, and, in some cases, mythical.
From the dodo to the Komodo dragon to folkloric winged horses, we've assembled a motley menagerie of unusual and/or threatened national animals to consider.
1. Unicorn (Scotland)
It's a creature that's majestic, mythical and possesses the singing voice of Mia Farrow. It appears (chained) on the Royal Coat of Arms and is a symbol of purity, strength and independence. It's also often covered in glitter and found in close proximity to magical rainbows. How could anyone take issue with the national animal of Scotland being a unicorn?
Shocking but true, a small but vocal group of Scots want to do away the unicorn, the heraldic symbol of Scotland that's also served as the country's national animal since the late 1300s. And what do these campaigners suggest take the unicorn’s place? They're pushing for another elusive beast to be named as Scotland's national animal, this one they believe to be real (at least for tourism purposes): the Loch Ness Monster. Their argument for the unicorn to be replaced by a lake-dwelling cryptid that's most likely a very large catfish? "How many people visit Scotland to look for unicorns? Exactly."
2. Dodo (Mauritius)
The extinct dodo lives on through museums, stamps and statues in Mauritius. (Image: Biodiversity Heritage Library/flickr)
When you're a small island nation in the Indian Ocean and your most famous endemic bird is also the poster-animal for extinction, of course that bird would be your national animal. And although the dodo went, well, the way of itself circa 1662, the curious-looking flightless bird remains both a symbol of Mauritian pride and a potent reminder of the plight of endangered species across the globe threatened by human activity.
Although the story of the dodo — a cautionary national animal if there ever was one — is tragic (Dutch settlers on the island ate them, destroyed their habit and introduced predatory invasive species), the spirit of this hefty pigeon cousin lives on through Mauritian business names, stamps and public statuary. Today, the bird is a tourism mascot and the subject of a museum in Mauritius' bustling capital city of Port Louis, where visitors will find drawings and skeletons of the legendary Raphus cucullatus.
3. Okapi (The Democratic Republic of Congo)
It's a donkey. It’s a baby giraffe. On second thought, it's an antelope. Or maybe a zebra half-covered in mud? No wait … what in the world is that?
Say hello to the okapi, one of Mother Nature's most confounding creations … an animal — a close relative to the giraffe, actually — so rare and so peculiar that it was long believed to be of mythical origin. This enigmatic ruminant with hair-covered horns, striped hindquarters and an obscenely long tongue even served as mascot for the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology. Of course, the okapi isn't a cryptid but a real species — and an endangered one at that. With a teeny-tiny range limited to the forests of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this skittish and solitary beast known as the "forest giraffe" has experienced steadily declining population numbers since the mid-1990s. Says Noëlle Kümpel, okapi specialist with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN): "Sadly, DRC has been caught up in civil conflict and ravaged by poverty for nearly two decades, leading to widespread degradation of okapi habitat and hunting for its meat and skin. Supporting government efforts to tackle the civil conflict and extreme poverty in the region are critical to securing its survival."
4. Komodo dragon (Indonesia)
Much like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia's national animal is a creature so unusual that it was classified as a cryptid until not all that long ago. In 1926, Western scientists confirmed the existence of massive "land alligators" living on Indonesia's Lesser Sunda Islands — and the public's fascination with the plus-sized, meat-eating lizard now known as the Komodo dragon hasn't waned since.
The only reptile to appear on this list, the Komodo dragon is also perhaps the most fearsome national animal in existence. To put it lightly, this isn't the type of creature you'd want to encounter alone in a dark alley. Or anywhere. Ever. Considerable body weight, muscular tail, powerful jaws, long claws, razor-sharp serrated teeth, bacteria-laden saliva and the fact that it can run — and run real fast — makes contact with this giant lizard best avoided if possible. Although terrifying, attacks on humans are relatively rare as most folks living amongst this fork-tongued monster know to keep their distance.
5. Baird's tapir (Belize)
Also called the 'mountain cow,' Baird's tapir enjoys some protection in Belize in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. (Photo: Eric Kilby/flickr)
Baird’s tapir, a weird-looking beast (think the odd-toed lovechild of a pig, a horse, an anteater and a hippo) that produces some seriously cute babies is both the largest indigenous land mammal in Central America and the national animal of Belize. It's also an endangered animal with less than 5,000 individuals estimated to be surviving in the wild.
The threats against Baird's tapir — aka the "mountain cow" — are not atypical: habitat destruction and poaching, which is illegal but not always enforced. And extremely low reproduction rate haven't helped to boost declining population numbers. In Belize, Baird's tapir enjoys a certain degree of protection within the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, a more than 6,000-acre reserve co-managed by the Belize Audubon Society that's home to a wide range of fauna, some of which, like Baird's tapir, are threatened.
6. Markhor (Pakistan)
The markhor is known for its twisty antler. (Photo: OZinOH/flickr)
Recently upgraded from endangered to near threatened on the IUCN Red List after decades of unchecked trophy hunting and habitat destruction, the imposing markor (Capra falconeri) is slowly but surely making a comeback.
Best known for sporting twisty, corkscrew-esque horns, the name of these super-agile wild goats comes from a Persian blend word that translates to "snake eater." While markhor certainly don't have a taste for reptiles — as far as the scientific community is concerned, they maintain a strictly herbivorous diet of grass and assorted vegetation — local legend has it that the goats have been known to hunt, stomp on and eat snakes. Others believe the name originates from the animal's distinctive horns, which are believed in traditional Asian medicine to have healing qualities. In addition to Pakistan, markhor can be found in the mountains of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and northern India. Closer to home, these sure-footed ruminants can be found at the Los Angeles Zoo, the Calgary Zoo and Stone Zoo in Boston.
7. Takin (Bhutan)
In local lore, the takin is thought to be derived from skeletal remnants of a goat meat and beef lunch. (Photo: Valerie/flickr)
Relatively new as national animals go, the takin was named national animal of Bhutan in 1985. A relative of the musk ox, it's a rare and strange-looking critter for sure — seemingly "assembled from a variety of zoological sources" — and one appropriately designed to traverse Bhutan’s vertiginous topography, thriving best in rugged alpine environments of 4,000 feet or higher.
A revered animal, the origins of the takin are steeped in local mythology and date back to the 15th century when Drukpa Kunley, a sexed-upTibetan saint known as the Divine Madman of Bhutan, created the takin — or dong gysem tsey — out of the skeletal remnants of a goat meat ‘n’ beef lunch provided to him by villagers. Reanimated leftovers, basically. Today, these bamboo-munching beasts (large goat-antelopes, technically) are considered a vulnerable species and, outside of the Himalayas, can be found in a number of American zoos including the San Diego Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo and Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. The druk — "Thunder Dragon" — is Bhutan's mythical national animal and appears on the national flag.
8. Phoenix (Greece)
While some might identify the national animal of Greece as the dolphin (which isn't incorrect), many more would say that the country's national bird — a mythical bird, at that — is the true national animal with the dolphin taking second fiddle. Mythical or not, both dolphin and phoenix are awesome creatures with roots in ancient Greek mythology. (Here's hoping that some of that rebirth-y phoenix mojo rubs off on modern-day Greece and as it continues to rise from the financial ashes.)
And Greece isn't the only country with a mythical national bird. Turul, a massive falcon that serves as divine messenger, has long served as a potent symbol of the Hungarian people. And in Portugal, the Rooster of Barcelos is the country's top emblematic chicken, its colorful likeness displayed front and center at touristy gift shops nationwide.
9. Chollima (North Korea)
Aside from the wide empty streets, socialist realist propaganda posters and the ghostly glass-and-concrete pyramid that positively soars into the sky, one of the first things that the limited number of Western visitors permitted to step foot in the Pyongyang, capital of the self-isolated hermit kingdom of North Korea, probably notice is the massive statue of a winged horse.
Said winged horse in none other than Chollima, a mythical creature of Chinese origin — a kind of hard-line communist take on Pegasus, if you will — that came to symbolize plans for swift postwar economic development introduced by Kim Il-Sung in the late 1950s. "Let us dash forward in the spirit of Collima!" was the reconstruction campaign's slogan. Decades later, Chollima remains an important — and rather ubiquitous — icon of North Korea. Perched atop Mansu Hill, the Chollima Statue at 150-feet-tall, is among the most imposing monuments in a city filled with imposing monuments. It's also usually appears on the tightly regulated itineraries of tourists.
10. The hedgehog, rabbit and wood mouse (Monaco)
Oh, Monaco. Sweet, innocent, super-rich Monaco.
In a bitsy, billionaire-filled European principality best known for a beloved storybook princess named Grace, it only makes sense that the three national animals are the type of harmless, cute-as-a-button woodland critters that you might find singing to Snow White: a hedgehog, rabbit and wood mouse. Carved into the Mediterranean coastline on the French Riviera, this sun-drenched microstate-cum-jet-set playground famed for its glitzy gambling establishments and Grand Prix, has no distinctive fauna to call its own, which is why it would seem that they just went with the obvious and the inoffensive. Hey, it's better than Marcel, the baccarat-playing mole. The national animals of other European microstates, the Pyrenean chamois (Andorra) and the Pharaoh hound (Malta) included, are certainly no match against the menacing menagerie of Monaco.