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Know your local wildlife: Virginia's state animal and plant symbols

Three Dogwoods
Three Dogwoods
Dorothy Birch, 2013

The commonwealth of Virginia has selected a variety of state symbols, including:

Flower & Tree: Dogwood

Bird: Northern Cardinal

Butterfly/Insect: Tiger Swallowtail

Freshwater Fish: Brook Trout

Bat: Virginia Big-Eared Bat

Fossil: Chesapecten jeffersonius

Shell: Eastern Oyster

Saltwater Fish: Striped Bass

Click through the following slides to learn a bit more about each of these interesting species and what makes them special.

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Three Dogwoods
Three Dogwoods Dorothy Birch, 2013

Three Dogwoods

The flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) tree is, perhaps, Virginia's most beloved bloom of spring. It is both the state flower and the state tree.

First, the flower:

Dogwoods produce drifts of large white or pink flowers in early spring, blooming at about the same time as redbuds and daffodils, generally in April.

The dogwood's white or pink "petals", however, are not petals at all; they're bracts. Bracts are modified or specialized leaves. The actual flowers of the dogwood are the small, citrine colored structures, usually 20 or so, in the center of the large white or pink bracts.

After a healthy season of visits from pollinators, the flowers disappear and the tree grows its bright red fruit, called drupes, they resemble a small, hanging, oval cherry. Dogwood drupes are an important source of food for many species of native birds.

Now, the tree:

The dogwood is a native tree, growing up to 33 feet tall, it occupies the "understory" of the forest, where shrubs and trees that are adapted to the shade provided by the taller trees' canopies flourish.

Though, by nature of its smaller stature, the dogwood does not provide suitable wood for home building, throughout Virginia's history, it has been incredibly useful and has supplied the commonwealth's residents with:

  • inks,
  • scarlet dyes, and
  • a quinine substitute.

The dogwood's wood is hard and dense, and has been used to make products including:

  • mallets,
  • wooden rake teeth,
  • tool handles, and
  • butcher’s blocks
Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal By William H. Majoros (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Northern Cardinal

Named for the bright red cassocks of Catholic cardinals. the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is one of the most recognized songbirds in the country.

Native to Virginia (and a large part of the continental United States), the cardinal is a frequent visitor to backyard bird feeders.

Fairly large amongst songbirds, cardinals can often be found sitting in low branches of trees, often in pairs.

Only the male cardinal has bright red plumage, the female is tawny and brown over most of her body, with muted red edges on her wings and crest. Both males and females have a darker "face" (black in males, brown in females) next to their large, flaming orange, conical bills.

The female cardinal is one of few North American songbirds that sing. Ornithologists theorize that the songs she sings while on the next may communicate to her mate what type of food to bring for the chicks.

Male cardinals are highly territorial, and will attack other males that enter their territory. In fact, when courting and mating hormones are at their highest, male cardinals have been known to try to mistake their own reflections for intruders, pecking at homes' windows for hours and even days.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Manjithkaini from ml [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) has been recognized as Virginia's state insect and its state butterfly.

This may seem a bit redundant, as all butterflies are insects, but tiger swallowtails are certainly impressive enough to hold two titles.

It's easy to see how the tiger swallowtail got its common name, with wings stretching up to 4.5 inches and striped in yellow and black.

Tiger swallowtails generally lay their eggs on the leaves of trees, including wild cherry, sweetbay, tulip poplar, birch, ash, and willow, which the new generation of caterpillars will munch with abandon.

As adults, these butterflies prefer the nectar from wild cherry trees and lilacs, as well as milkweed and joe pyeweed plants.

These butterflies do not migrate (unlike the monarch, perhaps the other most recognized butterfly in Virginia); the last caterpillars of the season survive winter in their chrysalis and emerge as butterflies in the spring.

Brook Trout
Brook Trout By Engbretson, Eric (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Brook Trout

The brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is not only the Virginia state freshwater fish, it is also the only native trout in the Roanoke River and New River watersheds.

Brook trout must have cold, oxygen-rich water in order to survive, and so they are found in cool mountain streams or ponds. In fact, the Latin word "fontinalis" used in the species' scientific name means from a spring or fountain.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the largest brook trout ever caught in the commonwealth weighted five pounds, 10 ounces and was landed in Big Stony Creek in 1987. (Webpage updated September 9, 2013)

Brook trout feed mainly on a number of aquatic insect larvae, including caddisflies, stoneflies, and mayflies, but will also eat insects that fall into the water, such as ants and beetles, as well as smaller fish and frogs.

The native range of brook trout was much, much larger than its current range. Loss of habitat due to forest clear-cutting and land development extirpated brook trout from many of their historical streams and rivers over the 20th century.

Though not endangered, brook trout are a sensitive species, easily stressed by degraded water quality.

Brook trout habitat is currently being degraded by chemical pollution and algal growth and blooms caused by fertilizer runoff.

Species of non-native trout, such as the brown trout (Salmo trutta), which have been introduced to Virginia waters as stock for anglers also put pressure on brook trout populations by competing for resources.

Virginia Big-Eared Bat
Virginia Big-Eared Bat By Stihler Craig, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia Big-Eared Bat

The Virginia big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii virginiaus) is also known as Townsend's big-eared bat, western big-eared bat, and mule-eared bat. Notice a theme? Yes, these bats have very, very large ears.

Large is, of course, a relative term. The ears are only about an inch long, but that's a quarter of the bat's total body length at rest. For comparison, a five foot tall woman would have to have 15 inch-long ears to meet that standard.

Though human females might not wish for such large ears, the bats' enormous ears give them an advantage when using their echolocation system to locate their main prey, small moths, in the dark summer night.

Big-eared bats are one of only two species (out of 16 total Virginia-native bat species) that live in caves all year round rather than just hibernating in them during winter. Also unlike most other Virginia bat species, the big-eared bat has not seen a significant population decline due to the fungal infection known as White Nose Syndrome (WNS).

It's incredibly fortunate that big-eared bats do not seem to be susceptible to WNS, as they are already federally endangered, and extremely rare throughout their range.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, big-eared bats only inhabit three caves in Tazewell County in summer and five caves in Highland, Bland, and Tazewell counties in the winter. The locations of these caves are not widely publicized because human disturbance of the caves is known to be a major cause for the bats' decline.

Chesapecten jeffersonius
Chesapecten jeffersonius By Nonenmac at en.wikipedia Later versions were uploaded by Iain at en.wikipedia. [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Chesapecten jeffersonius

Chesapecten jeffersonius is the fossil form of an extinct scallop that lived in the Chesapeake Bay four to five million years ago.

It was the first fossil described in scientific literature in North America, via a published drawing submitted by Martin Lister in 1687.

These scallops were abundant when alive in the Pliocene epoch, and their fossils are abundant now throughout the coastal plain of Virginia. Particularly rich deposits of C. jeffersonius can be found in Chippokes Plantation State Park.

Though C. jeffersonius fossils are found in a wide range of sizes, large specimens have been known to stretch more than seven inches in length and width.

Colony of Oysters at Low Tide
Colony of Oysters at Low Tide By NOAA Photo Library (nerr0327) [CC-BY-2.0 ( or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Colony of Oysters at Low Tide

Virginia's state shell, the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), which is also called the Atlantic oyster or Virginia oyster, is native to the waters of the east coast as well as the Gulf of Mexico.

The oysters themselves are a treat for seafood lovers, and when the shells have been emptied of meat, they are often re-used to provide habitat for a new generation of oysters, called spat.

Oyster shells are spat's favorite place to attach, cementing itself with an incredibly strong glue made of 90% calcium carbonate and 10% protein, according to recent research.

Oysters hold together so well, in fact, that they create huge "oyster reefs" that provide habitat for many other species of fish and crab.

The oysters themselves are hugely important to estuarine ecosystems not just because of their reefs, but also because they are filter feeders, improving water quality with every intake. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it has been estimated that oysters living in the Chesapeake were able to filter all of the water in the Bay in just a week.

Now, however, with overharvesting and water quality degradation having decreased the oyster population dramatically (some estimates say that the current population is only 1% of historical numbers), scientists believe it takes an entire year for the Bay's oysters to filter its water.

Huge piles of discarded oyster shells, known as "oyster middens" have been found all over the coastal plain, providing evidence of how important the oyster was in the diet and culture of the Native Americans that lived in coastal areas.

Striped Bass
Striped Bass By Tim Van Vliet (en:Image:StripedBass.JPG) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

Striped Bass

Striped bass (Morone saxatilis), also known as "rock fish", are native to Atlantic coast marine waters from the St. Lawrence river in Canada all the way to Louisiana's Gulf of Mexico waters.

They don't spend their entire lives in salt water, though. They are anadromous fish, which means they can migrate between fresh water and salt water.

Much like shad on the east coast or salmon on the west coast, striped bass swim up freshwater rivers to spawn in the spring, then makes its way back out to sea, where the fish spend most of its adult life.

The next generation of striped bass hatch in just two or three days, then move slowly downstream, living in the shallows of tidal rivers for the first two years of their lives.

Adult striped bass grow up to 20 inches long and weigh, on average, about 30 pounds. The striped bass that holds the Virginia record was caught in the Leesville Reservoir in the year 2000 and weighed 53 pounds, seven ounces.

Striped bass are one of the most popular commercial and recreational catches in the Chesapeake Bay, which is the largest striped bass nursery area on the Atlantic coast. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 70-90% of the Atlantic striped bass population uses the Chesapeake Bay to spawn.

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