Nearly 150 animal species traverse Texas’s terrain, yet only two are emblematic of the Lone Star State. Texas’s official small mammal is the armadillo (fun fact: female armadillos always have four pups, and all four are always the same sex) and the state’s official large mammal is the Texas Longhorn.
Though these iconic creatures can typically be seen from the road—in the armadillo’s case, it’s usually flat on the road—the animals lurking in forests and canyons are the most interesting. Cougars are still fairly common in southwestern portions of the state, and Texas-worthy mammals like the javelina (a feral, tusked pig-like creature), the kangaroo rat, and the antelope-ish pronghorn roam the prairies and brush country.
Also of interest is Texas’s bat population, which includes 33 of the country’s 43 known bat species. The world’s largest bat colony lives in Bracken Cave near San Antonio, and each summer, more than one million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge, much to the delight of tourists and townies. Texas’s less distinctive yet still notable mammals include white-tailed deer (estimated at nearly four million), black bear, coyotes, and beaver.
Texas is a destination and crossing point for myriad bird species during migratory seasons. It’s also home to hundreds of native varieties. More kinds of birds (approximately 600) are in Texas than any other state—primarily due to its south-central location. Feathered pals from the eastern and western part of the country occupy Texas’s air space, and international travelers cross the Mexican border, drawing avid bird-watchers from across the United States.
Texas birds can be grouped into five major categories: permanent residents (mockingbirds, roadrunners, screech owls), migrants (snow geese, scarlet tanagers, various sandpipers), winter residents (common loons and terns, red-bellied woodpeckers), summer residents (purple martins, yellow-breasted chats, orchard orioles), and accidentals (greater flamingos, red-footed boobies, yellow-billed loons).
Spring is the prime time for bird watching. Serious and amateur birders from across the country visit the Gulf Coast and Rio Grande Valley to catch a glimpse of migrating and native bird species. Pelicans, spoonbills, egrets, and herons are fairly easy to spot. Those looking for a unique birding experience can join a boat tour to spy whooping cranes, the massive white birds boasting a seven-foot-wide wingspan that were nearly extinct before efforts were made to revive the species. Now more than 100 spend their winters in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast.
Texas’s other main endangered bird species is the golden-cheeked warbler, a migratory songbird that breeds only in ashe juniper woodlands in Central Texas. Its habitat was reduced by encroaching development by about a quarter, but highly publicized campaigns to protect the species have helped preserve its nesting grounds.
An amazing variety of marine animals live in the Gulf of Mexico, home to thousands of fish and shellfish that depend on the coast’s diverse habitats for food and shelter. These environs are typically categorized by five distinct water areas—salt marshes, coastal bays, jetties, nearshore waters, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Fish and shrimp enter salt marshes looking for food or for a place to lay their eggs. They’re joined by several species of crabs (fiddler, hermit, and stone), snails, mussels, and worms. Coastal bays and beaches are home to two types of jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war (stay away from these purplish baggy creatures with the poison blue tentacles) and the relatively harmless cabbagehead, which looks like its namesake and is occasionally used by dolphins as a type of toy ball.
The beach area also supports oysters, spotted seatrout, and several species of catfish. Jetties, which are used to prevent ship channels from piling up with sand and silt, consist of large stones providing shelter and food for a wide range of sea life, including sea anemones, urchins, crabs, grouper, and sea trout. Artificial reefs (stone rubble, old ships, oil rigs) open near shore waters to mussels, shrimp, crabs, and a host of other animals, including the fish that feed on them (tarpon, kingfish, and others).
The Gulf of Mexico is home to some of Texas’s heaviest hitters. Great barracuda and hammerhead, as well as lemon and bull sharks, devour smaller varieties such as bluefish, striped bass, and tuna. When the currents and temperatures are just right, tropical species such as parrotfish, angelfish, and spiny lobsters also visit the Gulf waters.
Snakes slither across much of Texas’s surface, and the state’s range of reptiles is rather impressive. Texas is home to 16 varieties of poisonous snakes (including 11 types of rattlesnakes), which can be extremely hazardous to hikers and campers. Other dangerous snakes include cottonmouth, copperheads, and Texas coral snakes.
Snake bites from these varieties require a few basic first-aid techniques if medical care is not immediately available. The American Red Cross suggests washing the bite with soap and water, and keeping the bitten area immobilized and lower than the heart. Equally as important are avoiding popular remedy misconceptions: Do not apply hot or cold packs; do not attempt to suck the poison out; and do not drink any alcohol or use any medication.
Texas is also home to hundreds of nonvenomous snake species, some of which mimic their poisonous counterparts. The Texas bull snake realistically imitates a rattlesnake, all the way down to the rattling sound, and a milksnake and coral snake look disturbingly alike, with the same colors but in different orders. A time-honored Texas adage helps differentiate the two: red and yellow, kill a fellow (the coral snake has red next to yellow stripes); red and black, friend of Jack (the milksnake has red next to black stripes).
Not to be overlooked are Texas’s other distinctive reptiles. The official state reptile is the Texas horned lizard (charmingly referred to as the horny toad), which is primarily found in West Texas. The state’s other noteworthy reptiles include alligators, sea turtles, gecko lizards, and spinytail iguanas.
Insects and Butterflies
Nearly 100,000 different kinds of pesky insects buzz around Americans’ heads and ankles, and a third of those bugs have been found in Texas. The Lone Star State proudly claims to have a greater variety of insects than any other state.
Texas also has more butterfly species than any other state. Its 400 varieties number more than half the butterfly species in the United States and Canada. The recognizable monarch butterfly makes its annual migratory flight through Texas en route to its wintering grounds in Mexico; this southward flight in late summer and fall can be quite a spectacle, when monarchs fill the air and gather on trees by the thousands.
Texas’s insects are just as numerous but not nearly as charming. Most of these winged and antennaed creatures are ecologically beneficial, but the two insects that creep immediately to most Texans’ minds are the bothersome mosquito and the squirm-inducing cockroach.
Like most living things in Texas, amphibians are well represented due to the tremendous diversity in climate and temperature. Frogs, toads, and salamanders are common in all areas of the state, but the greatest abundance and diversity are in the relatively wet habitats of the eastern third of the state. Camping near lakes and streams in this area offers visitors an audio sampler of the various croaks and calls of Texas’s native frog and toad species.
Perhaps the best-known Texas amphibian is the Barton Springs Salamander, a tiny creature found only among the rocks of Austin’s legendary spring-fed swimming pool. In 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the Barton Springs Salamander to the endangered and threatened wildlife list, and the city of Austin later caused a big stir when it adopted strict development guidelines to protect this pint-sized creature.
© Andy Rhodes from Moon Texas, 6th Edition