The United States’ national animal is the bison (as of 2016), and our national bird is the bald eagle. Both aren’t too surprising, considering their significance in American history and culture. However, there are several countries that have adopted much more unusual national animals. Some aren’t even real. Here are five:
The Scottish have always loved the unicorn. In the 12th-century, the animal appeared on William I’s royal coat of arms, and in the 15th century, the unicorn appeared on gold coins. For many centuries, people actually believed the unicorn might be real, but even when it became pretty clear it wasn’t, Scotland still liked what it symbolized. The horned horse represents strength, and because the unicorn is depicted with a gold chain around its neck and body, it could be that it represents how powerful Scottish kings are able to control it. If you could tame a unicorn, there wasn’t anything that could challenge you. You can see depictions of unicorns all over Scotland, including at Delgatie Castle – one of the oldest castles in Scotland – and at the Queen’s chair in the Thistle Chapel in Edinburgh.
Country: New Zealand
The kiwi bird is probably New Zealand’s most beloved animal. The indigenous people of the country – the Maori – always revered the bird and make kiwi feather cloaks for important people. Those feathers are very unusual; they’re much furrier than other birds. The kiwi is also unusual because it’s the only bird that has nostrils at the tip of its beak. While not the most intimidating animal, the kiwi is very intelligent with strong legs. The wingless bird is found only in New Zealand, so it makes sense that the country would choose it to represent them.
Animal: Emu and red kangaroo
Australia has not one, but two unusual national animals. The emu can grow over six feet tall, making it the second-largest bird in the world. It can’t fly, but it can run at a top speed of 30 mph if necessary. The other national animal, the red kangaroo, is also very tall and the largest terrestrial mammal native to Australia. Compared to humans, there are double the number of red kangaroos in the country. Why did Australia pick these two animals? It’s a common belief that neither can move backward, only forward, and Australia liked that idea for their country’s philosophy. Both animals actually can move backward, just not very well, so the general idea holds true. The emu and red kangaroo face each other on the banner of the first coat of arms.
Country: North Korea
North Korea doesn’t technically have a national animal, but they love the chollima, a mythical winged horse. In 1956, after the Korean War, Kim Il-Sung kicked off a period of reconstruction he called the Chollima Workers Movement. The idea was that like the chollima, which could run one thousand miles a day, North Korean workers would speedily rebuild. That sort of breakneck speed is a bit too much to ask, and by the 1960’s, the movement faded in popularity. The chollima’s presence remains, however, in the form of a giant statue in Pyongyang and the name of the national football team.
The dodo made its home on Mauritius, and lived there for millions of years without predators. However, in the 1500’s, traveling sailors and invasive species began hunting them aggressively for food, and the bird went extinct. For a long time, we only had 17th-century illustrations and written accounts of their presence, though now some bones have been found. We’re still not quite sure what the dodo really looked like or how it behaved, but Mauritius picked the bird as its national animal. The dodo’s image appears in places like the watermark on banknotes and on the coat of arms.
Unusual national animals can draw attention to environmentalism and endangered species. So can naming an animal after a TV show character or something else from pop culture.