California ranks first in biodiversity and endemism. The Golden State is unique both in its topography and its position on the globe, giving rise to six life zones (areas with similar faunal and floral communities) full of dozens of unique ecosystems and microclimates.
So it’s near impossible to explore any part of the state without running into a unique critter, be it the chaparral region where wine is made, or the Arctic zones in California’s mountainous regions.
Here are five unique Californian creatures and how we can keep them safe.
Where once there were 500,000 of California’s only elk species roaming the state, now there are 4,000. Though it’s the smallest elk species out there, it’s the largest ungulate in the state. There are 22 herds of tule elk, and they are typically found in relatively confined areas, such as the Point Reyes Seashore region in the Bay Area, and even on private property. Human encroachment is the largest threat facing the species today, but fortunately their numbers are slowly rising.
Supporting relocation efforts performed by the California Department of Fish and Game is one way to keep the population on the upswing, as most herds quickly outgrow their regions and competition becomes a factor in survival. Individual visitors can respect ecosystems in which the tule elk thrive, keeping campfires contained and leaving no trace in general.
Barely more than a month ago, three of four subspecies of California’s Island fox came off the endangered species list, and not because they went extinct, which was the predicted outcome at one point. This fox species lives on the Channel Islands, and looks smaller than their gray fox ancestors due to insular dwarfism, a characteristic common to island species that have limited breeding options. They almost reached extinction due to predation by golden eagles.
Friends of the Island Fox is the best organization through which continued support can be given, be it by donation, helping with education, or becoming an ambassador school so children are raised understanding the fragile nature of what might be California’s most unique creature.
In the Southern part of California, living between the mountains and those famous SoCal beaches is a blind, glow-in-the-dark-millipede, topping out at barely four centimeters in length. To find it, search at night in oak and sequoia forests, as well as the meadows found within them. Flashlights are not even needed! Their bioluminescence evolved as a mechanism to help them metabolize oxygen in the desert climate. Considering the millipedes “ooze” cyanide, the glowing serves as predator defense, too.
How do we keep these little cyanide-filled nightlights glowing their little hearts out? According to the National Wildlife Federation, “Millipedes do not bite, sting, or infest food, fabric, or wood, and they are usually beneficial to gardens as they break down decaying plant matter.” Locals and visitors alike can do their part by relocating the bugs to a less bothersome location, rather than squashing them due to unnecessary fear. Don’t dim their sparkle
If cyanide doesn’t do it for you, then consider the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, which is hundreds of times more toxic than cyanide, and seeps from the skin of the adorable California newt. This brown-backed, orange-bellied amphibian can be found in coastal areas and anywhere where climates are a bit drier. Handling them will cause skin to tingle, but their toxicity can be fatal if ingested by any animal except garter snakes, who have evolved a resistance to tetrodotoxin.
Unfortunately, human encroachment and invasive species have bumped the California newt up to a species of concern, putting them on the path towards endangerment. There are no specific conservation measures in place to prevent this from happening, but everyone can chip in respecting the boundaries of nature reserves, and not picking up/consuming the creatures.
There may be no better name for a beaver found in California, especially one that in 2006 arrived to Martinez, the former hometown of famous naturalist John Muir, and saw to it that minks, otters, and steelhead trout were able to thrive there once again. This was after the beavers and their descendants were faced with extermination due to the problems their dam was causing in the local waterway. Fortunately The Sierra Club, local residents, and others came together to find an alternate solution that ended with the beavers surviving.
Issues like what the beavers faced occur all over the state of California, from the Delta Smelt to the California Condor. Wildlife enthusiasts around the globe can lend their support of not destroying natural habitats through vocal disagreement, signing petitions, and raising awareness about the problems small groups of creatures face.