Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Flags: State of Colorado

My ridiculous travel schedule has afforded another opportunity to reflect on the flag of the state in which I am currently sitting - this time, I'm even sitting in the state capital.

I like to think that the prominent C flying over the state house in Denver represents not only "Colorado" but "centennial," since the state entered the Union during 1876. While Colorado is widely known as the Centennial State, the notion that this figured into the flag design is pure conjecture. Still, the flag is attractive and distinctive. It's even featured in the design of the state highway signs - the only state to do so, though Alaska and New Mexico incorporate elements of their flags into their highway markers.

Colorado's official animal symbols - living and extinct - are superb; they're so fantastic, in fact, that I'll forgive the legislature for using the word "animal" when the mean "mammal." With that in mind, let's start with the official state mammal, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis). In addition to their spectacular head-butting ability, I admire the ability of an animal weighing up to three hundred pounds to balance on precipitous slopes.

The official state fish is the greenback cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki somias), a beautiful subspecies of the cutthroat trout (so named for red slash marks on the lower jaw) found from the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific. The Centennial State is not alone in its admiration for these handsome fishes; the Lahontan cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi) is Nevada's state fish1. Anyway, it seems that the once-common greenback cutthroat was severely affected by human activity and was feared extinct until intrepid biologists found relict populations in a few backcountry streams in Rocky Mountain National Park. There are plans to reintroduce the greenback to waters in its former range.

Colorado is lucky to have one of the best-known dinosaurs as its official state fossil. Stegosaurus lived in Colorado during the Jurassic Period, before the rise of the Rocky Mountains for which the state is now famous. One prominent specimen was discovered by high school students from CaƱon City, west of Pueblo. Moving on to scaly critters with us yet today, the state reptile is the western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta bellii), a handsome shellback found throughout the state.

There are many more awesome things about Colorado, from the subtle beauty of the high plains in the east, to the sudden rise of the Front Range, to the blooms of the short alpine summer, but these will have to wait. Read more about Colorado state symbols from the state's Department of Personnel & Administration web site.

1 When I checked the list of Nevada state symbols to confirm my suspicion, I found that Nevada's official state mammal is the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), closely related to the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep of Colorado. I don't know who's copying whom, but it's a good thing that Utah separates the Centennial and Silver States, preventing them from bickering like siblings in the back seat of a station wagon.

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