California is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. And because our state is not only hemmed in by tall mountain ranges but surrounded by places that are significantly different in an ecological sense, the Golden State is isolated in many ways from the landscapes adjoining it.
That means that California has long functioned as kind of a crucible for evolution, generating new species and subspecies that differ markedly from their non-Californian relatives. As a result, our state has a lot of what ecologists call "endemic species," meaning species found in California and nowhere else.
The list of California endemic animal species is long, and we've never found one not worth talking about. But for our purposes here, we've winnowed that long list down to one each for mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates. Think of it as a introductory sampler to California's unique wildlife, a few examples of the state's biological richness found nowhere else on Earth.
Tule elk (Mammals)
Cervus canadensis nannodes.
In the 19th century, Californians thought they'd wiped out the last of this Californian subspecies of elk, but a single pair were then found hiding in the tule marshes of Buena Vista Lake in Kern County in 1874. That pair were given refuge and allowed to breed by landowner Henry Miller, who ran the gigantic Miller and Lux ranch in the Central Valley. All of the 4,000 or so tule elk alive today descend directly from that pair, the tule elk's Adam and Eve.
Tule elk are the smallest subspecies of elk (a.k.a. wapiti) in North America, generally not getting bigger than 400-500 pounds. That's compared to almost 800 pounds for male elk in other parts of the country. Estimates of the elk's numbers before the 19th century generally run about half a million, making them the dominant grazing animal in California before the Spaniards got here.
That's a lot more than our current 4,000 or so, but we owe Henry Miller a debt of gratitude that we have any at all. And of all California's endemic wildlife species, tule elk are among the most easily seen, with populations planted up and down the state. The Tule Elk State Reserve near Tupman in Kern County is a reliable viewing spot, as is Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore in the Bay Area.
California clapper rail (Birds)
Rallus longirostris obsoletus
This endangered subspecies of the more widespread clapper rail is found only in salt marshes between Morro Bay and San Francisco Bay. It's endangered for two main reasons. First, its preferred habitat, the stands of native cordgrass and pickleweed that once covered much of the state's tidal wetlands, has mostly been filled in or otherwise destroyed for human convenience. (We've put our freeeways, our landfills, and our ill-advised bay fill developments on it.)
Second, during the Gold Rush era, California clapper rails were considered mighty good eating. Visitors to San Francisco and Oakland reported seeing restaurants with racks of cooked clapper rails available for purchase.
Thankfully, we've put a stop to that practice, but there are still far fewer California clapper rails than there ought to be, with fewer than 1,000 estimated in their San Francisco Bay stronghold. New threats to the bird include toxic runoff from city streets, and encroachment by an invasive relative of the native cordgrass the birds use for shelter. (The new species forms thicker colonies, which make it harder for the birds to move through them. The native species grows a bit more sparsely, which means the rails have convenient corridors that let them wander through the cordgrass stands.)
California clapper rails stand about as tall as your basic chicken, and get their name from their calls, which early observers though sounded like clapping. (We don't know if we agree: you be the judge.) The birds prowl their mudflat homes and eat molluscs, insects, and crustaceans, along with frogs and occasional small mammals. They're harder to view in the wild than our sample mammal the tule elk; hanging out around the mudflats in San Francisco Bay at high tide with a good pair of binoculars is your best bet.
San Francisco garter snake (Reptiles)
Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia
Not only is this one of the coolest animals endemic to California, but it's in the running for the most beautiful animals of any kind in the world. Sleek and shy, with striking red and blue stripes running lengthwise with black margins, I've often thought San Francisco garters looked like Aztec gods rendered in onyx, turquoise, lapis, and carnelian.
A subspecies of the much more common garter snake, the San Francisco garter no longer lives in the City and County for which it was named: development of its preferred freshwater wetland habitat drove it out of the city. The remaining members of the subspecies are restricted to San Mateo County and the very northern edge of Santa Cruz County.
The San Francisco garter snake is a member of the so-called "Class of '67"; it was in the first batch of species declared Endangered by the federal government under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, a precursor to 1973's Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The snake's striking beauty has proved another threat to the species, as it's much sought after by illegal collectors.
In a bit of either irony or bad luck or both, the San Francisco garter snake's preferred prey is also listed under ESA: the California red-legged frog, a Threatened species. The snake spends its time hunting in vegetation around freshwater ponds, looking for red-legged frogs or juvenile bullfrogs. (Bullfrogs, which aren't native to California, pose another threat to the San Francisco garter: the adult frogs avidly consume the snakes.) Juvenile SF garters will also eat Pacific chorus frogs, a.k.a. treefrogs.
No one's quite sure just how many San Francisco garters there are left in the world, partly because it's hard to round them up when they spend their time hiding in pond vegetation. Sadly, though, what estimates there are run around 1,000 individuals or fewer.
California newt (Amphibians)
Here's one other occasional source of food for the San Francisco garter, but you're best advised not to join the garter for a snack. The California newt, that distinctive coastal salamander with the orange and brown two-tone paint job, secretes the same deadly toxin that makes eating pufferfish at cheap sushi joints a risky venture. Tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin about a hundred times as dangerous per gram as potassium cyanide, can cause swift and unpleasant death by respiratory failure. Though at least one human fatality has been reported involving someone who swallowed newts on a dare, you can also take in enough tetrodotoxin to ruin your day by picking up a California newt if you've got an open sore on your hand. The snakes are immune to the toxin, but you aren't. A word to the wise.
As long as you don't pick them up, let alone eat them, California newts are one of the most engaging wild animals endemic to California. Ranging from five to eight inches in total length, they mainly make themselves apparent during the rainy seasons. That's when males and females head out of their forest floor burrows toward open water, where they engage in some of the wildest orgies California wildlife has to offer.
Newts will head for their breeding ponds in such numbers that at least one road, South Park Drive in Berkeley, is closed seasonally to prevent dozens of roadkills per day.
Like many animals, California newts change their appearance during their breeding phase. Males' tails flatten out vertically, providing the boys with better swimming ability. Their usually pebbly skin smooths out as well. Females undergo similar but more subtle changes. When a female enters a breeding pond she's usually mobbed, the males forming a ball of writhing newts with the female at the center. The male most persistent in just hanging on fertilizes her eggs, which she then attaches to submerged vegetation in clusters of up to 50.
Those eggs hatch out in anywhere from two to six weeks, depending on variables such as water temperature, and the juvenile newts, much like tadpoles, may stay in their birth pond as long as a year. They then lose their aquatic tails and their gills, grow stronger legs, and hike off into the woods. They prey on insects, worms, and other very small animals, then return to their birth pond to mate at around age three.
With a range running along the coast from Mendocino County to the Santa Ana Range, California newts are a familiar sign of the change of seasons across much of the state. It starts raining and the newts cross the road. Who says we don't have seasons?
Golden trout (Fish)
Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita
California's state fish since the 1940s, the taxonomically confusing golden trout is native to a few high-elevation tributaries of the Kern River east of Lake Isabella. We say "taxonomically confusing" because, as is the case with a whole lot of other trout and salmon in the genus Oncorhynchus, the experts aren't in complete agreement as to the precise identity of the golden trout. Some experts hold that there are three kinds of golden trout, each of them a distinct subspecies of rainbow trout. But others don't agree, placing at least the most abundant form of golden trout in its own species, Oncorhynchus aguabonita.
It's one of those issues that may not ever be resolved, a failure of our concept of species rather than of the science. But here's what's certain: the golden trout, and its possible sister subspecies the Little Kern golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss whitei) and the Kern golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss giberti) are just gorgeous.
Possibly worth noting: the Little Kern golden trout hails from the Little Kern River: its name doesn't imply anything about its size relative to the Kern golden trout.
All three subspecies (or whatever) were first found only in a few miles of stream in the Kern River drainage around present-day Lake Isabella. They've been transplanted widely into other watersheds and other states, with varying levels of success. (As they are found naturally only in California, they still qualify as an endemic animal.) The fish do best in conditions similar to their streams of origin: fast-flowing, cold, and clear watercourses between 6,500 and 10,000 feet above sea level.
Golden trout have been transplanted all over the place because they're gorgeous, they're (so we have heard) delicious, and anglers enjoy catching them. Sadly, that popularity hasn't helped them in their native streams. Overgrazing by cows and sheep sends silt into their streams. Planted trout of other species, including rainbows and browns, compete with the goldens, eat their eggs, or interbreed with them, altering the subspecies' gene pool. The goldens' numbers have been dropping for decades, and it's entirely possible you'll live to see the news that they are no more.
Valley elderberry longhorn beetle (Invertebrates)
Desmocerus californicus dimorphus
Republican legislators hate this insect. A denizen of one of California's fastest-disappearing habitats, the Central Valley's stream-side woodlands, this beetle relies on what you might call "old-growth" elder shrubs, with stems about two or three inches thick at their bases. The insects' larvae need plants at least that large, because they'll have the inch-thick upper stems the larvae need at a minimum for their tunneling. That means that the species needs stands of elder (and related riparian vegetation) that haven't been cut down for a decade or so, to let the elders get big enough to host the longhorned beetle larvae.
And given that the land that houses those patches of riparian woodland is in high demand for suburban development and cotton fields, that makes the valley elderberry longhorn beetle a villain in a lot of anti-environmental talking points. The beetle has lost about 90 percent of its habitat since the Gold Rush, and was listed as Threatened in 1980 as a result. In order to protect the beetle, you need to protect its habitat, and so the beetle's listing provided a little bit of leverage for working to preserve a tiny bit of what were once grand stretches of elderberry, native grape, and other plants important to California's wildlife.
In the 1990s, the beetle gained some undeserved notoriety among the antienvironmental crowd: it was charged that the beetle's protected status interfered with levee repairs, endangering lives and property during floods. Those charges were not precisely anywhere near truthful: there were and are plenty of exemptions to the Endangered Species Act protection of Threatened species that come into play when public safety is at issue. No emergency repairs of levees were ever thwarted by the presence of the beetle, which became a scapegoat for development policies that put cities on 50-year floodplains throughout the Central Valley.
Nonetheless, the beetle is likely to be delisted pretty soon, after decades of pressure from the right. Fortunately, agencies and conservationists have been working to protect a bit of riparian habitat for the beetles, and the elders they depend on. It's likely that adult valley elderberry longhorn beetles will be emerging from their stem tunnels to feed on elder leaves for some time to come... though not as many as some of us would like.