Even though Scotland voted last week to remain a part of the United Kingdom and not become an independent country, one symbol of Scottish pride holds strong: the national animal, the unicorn.
While selecting a mythical animal as your patriotic mascot may seem odd, the choice has historic context. The unicorn has been used in Scottish heraldic symbols since the 12th century, and it was combined with the English lion on the royal coat of arms when the two kingdoms merged. According to the CIA World Factbook, there are no strict rules for choosing a national animal—it can be any creature “that over time has come to be closely identified with a country or entity”. Not all nations have official animals, and some have multiple options, including a few countries that have mythical beasts in addition to real ones.
That got us wondering: What other unusual animals are dutifully representing countries around the world? Here are a few favorites:
Komodo dragon (Indonesia)
While China and Vietnam have mystical dragons among their national emblems, only Indonesia can say it has the real deal. The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is the world’s largest living lizard. Adults can grow to nearly 10 feet long and can weigh more than 360 pounds. They don’t breathe fire, but they do have a venomous bite that causes their prey to rapidly go into shock.
A member of the goat family, the markour (Capra falconeri) roams sparsely wooded regions in the Himalayas. The name comes from the Persian words for “snake” and “eating”, even though the animals primarily chow down on leaves and grasses. The name might instead have been inspired by the distinctive corkscrew-shaped horns, which can reach up to 63 inches long. Two of the three subspecies live in Pakistan, although the species as a whole is endangered due to habitat loss and game hunting.
Mexico’s main national animal is the golden eagle—the bird that legend says played a role in the founding of Mexico City and appears on the country’s flag. But the country didn’t stop there: it also selected a national mammal (jaguar), a national arthropod (grasshopper), a national marine mammal (vaquita) and a national dog, xoloitzcuintli. Commonly called a Mexican hairless, the xoloitzcuintli (pronounced “show-low-itz-quint-lee”) descends from an ancient species native to Central America that was prized by the Aztecs, who believed the canine to have healing abilities.
Secretary bird (Sudan)
The coat of arms of Sudan features the secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius), a distant cousin of the vulture. Although it can fly, the long-legged secretary bird is one of only two bird species known to hunt on foot: it is found mostly in savannas south of the Sahara, stalking through tall grasses in search of prey. The odd moniker may have come from English visitors in the 1800s, who compared the bird’s color and plumage to the typical dress of a male secretary, complete with a feather-quill pen stuck behind the ear.
In the 16th century, Bhutan legend says, a Tantric master asked his followers to perform a miracle. So a local folk hero took a heap of cow and goat bones and crafted the first takin. Today, we know the takin (Burdorcas taxicolor) is more closely related to sheep than cows or goats, but it continues to be revered in Bhutan. The plant-munching ungulates live in valleys during cooler months and migrate in groups into the Himalaya in warmer weather, reaching altitudes of 14,000 feet.
As many as one-third of Europe’s population of gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) come to Iceland to breed, feasting on the abundance of ducks and ground-nesting birds that flock around the country’s thermal pools in summer. Favored by royal falconers in the Middle Ages, the gyrfalcon is a speedy Arctic predator that is a common character in Icelandic folklore.
Cypriot mouflon (Cyprus)
The mouflon, a wild sheep species, is found scattered around the Mediterranean and is mentioned in ancient Greco-Roman texts. The Cypriot subspecies (Ovis gmelini ophion) is found only on Cyprus, an island republic south of Turkey. The Cypriot mouflon is the biggest wild animal on the island, growing about three feet high. Its population was severely reduced in the 19th century due to hunting, but stricter game laws enacted in the late 1930s helped save the subspecies.
Pine marten (Croatia)
In Medieval times, the pine marten (Martes martes) was the basis of the Croatian economy. Pelts of this small weasel-like mammal were used as trade currency and to pay taxes. In the 13th century, a marten appeared on Croatian coins. And in 1994, the country renamed its official monetary unit from the dinar to the kuna, the Croatian word for “marten”.
Most visitors to Peru show up ready to see llamas, the shaggy, camel-like beasts that are a common form of transit in the Andes. But Peru selected a relative of the llama, the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna), as its national animal, which appears on the country’s coat of arms. The vicuña lives in alpine heights of the Andes, and its luxuriously soft wool has been prized by Inca royalty, Spanish kings and Hollywood elite. A vicuña coat was even the star of a major U.S. political scandal in the 1950s.
Chollima (North Korea)
Like Scotland, North Korea has only a mythical animal as its emblem, the winged horse called Chollima. Korean folklore says this untamable horse can cover hundreds of miles in a day. In the 1950s, after a cease-fire agreement was signed between the north and south, North Korean president Kim il Sun urged people to rebuild the nation at Chollima speed. A famous bronze statue of the steed stands today in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.