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California Doesn't Have an Official Amphibian, But It Might Soon

Red-legged frog | Photo: KQEDQuest/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California is big on symbolism. Over the years, the state legislature has designated lots of Official State Things, some of them fairly obscure. In addition to the usual State Bird, the California quail, we also have an official state soil, an official state marine mammal, and even an official state prehistoric artifact.

But unlike more forward-thinking states such as Oklahoma and Arizona, we don't have a state amphibian. And that's an omission Coachella Valley Assembly Member V. Manuel Perez wants to remedy.

In late March, Perez introduced Assembly Bill 2364, which would designate the red-legged frog, Rana draytonii, as California's official state amphibian. If it passes, the frog would join the gray whale, the dogface butterfly, the garibaldi, and the desert tortoise in the pantheon of California's Official State wildlife.

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Other species designated as official state symbols by California's legislature include the extinct California grizzly (Official State Animal) and the even more extinct sabretoothed cat (Official State Fossil). Purple needle grass and the California poppy are the state's grass and flower, respectively, while the title of Official State Tree is shared by the coast redwood and the giant sequoia.

The red-legged frog, listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, was once widespread in California, and is thought by some to have been the inspiration for Mark Twain's popular short story. But the frog has been in decline ever since Twain's Gold Rush contemporaries decided to make them a staple of the frontier diet. Even though we've stopped eating them, our massive interference with the Californian landscape keeps their numbers dropping. Destruction of wetlands, pesticides and toxic runoff, and competition from introduced species of frogs and fish have done serious damage to the red-legged frog.

In fact, one of the biggest threats to our proposed state amphibian comes from the official state amphibian of Oklahoma: the American bullfrog. Introduced into California starting in the 19th Century with more coming into the state nearly every day since, the voracious bullfrog happily eats red-legged frog adults and tadpoles, along with just about anything else they can cram into their mouths.

The text of Perez's bill contains a pretty fair description of the many threats the frog faces:

While the California red-legged frog no longer has to fear the fork, the species continues to face myriad natural and manmade threats, including the introduction of invasive species into the California red-legged frog's habitat, as well as habitat loss. In fact, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, populations of the California red-legged frog have disappeared from nearly 70 percent of its historically known habitat. In May 1996, the species was listed as a federal threatened species, with the state also classifying it as a species of special concern and subject to protection in June 1996.

Perez says that recognizing Rana draytonii as the state's official amphibian will "broadcast and reinforce the state's commitment to protecting endangered species." Sounds good to us.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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