National Animals of Europe
In countries around the world, national animals represent the best of what destinations have to offer.
In the United States, the bald eagle famously embodies strength and vigor. In India, the majestic tiger evokes power and grace. In China, the Chinese dragon is a figure of luck and prosperity.
For our money, though, the most memorable national animals come from Europe. Here, creatures both mythical and real have played a significant role in national histories and identities.
From unicorns and dragons to butterflies and bulldogs, learn more about the creatures European nations proudly claim as their own.
You may think of the mythical phoenix as Greece’s national animal, but you’d only be half right. The phoenix is actually the national bird of Greece, which celebrates a real animal as its symbol: the dolphin.
While Greece may be known for its myths and gods, it is also flanked by water. The coastlines of Greece's 2,000 islands in the Aegean, Ionian and Mediterranean Seas, combined with a sizable mainland coast, combine to total 8,500 miles. This represents the largest coastline in all of Europe, which means plenty of space for dolphins to call home.
These playful creatures hold a special place in Greek mythology. The story goes that when seamen angered the god of wine, Dionysus, they had to succumb to the seas to get away. Poseidon, the god of the sea, had pity on the sailors, turning them into dolphins and tasking them with keeping other sailors safe. Tales of dolphins rescuing sailors have continued throughout the centuries, and the Greeks adore their national animal.
Fun fact: the word "dolphin" is itself Grecian in origin. It derives from the ancient Greek root “delphis,” which means “womb,” as the playful sea mammals (no, they're not fish!) bear live young.
Great Britain: Bulldog
The now-extinct Old English Bulldog became a popular figure in British life in the 18th century, when its strength and tenacity were used to symbolize political might.
During WWI, the British bulldog was used as a symbol on propaganda posters because of its “pluck and determination.” The Royal Navy even had a destroyer in its fleet named the "Bulldog," sailing from 1930 to 1945, most famously serving as the ship that captured the Germans' Enigma code machine.
Most famously, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was nicknamed "British Bulldog" thanks to his determined spirit, prominent jowl and stocky build. His association with the strong-jawed animal was cemented when he took a hard stance against the Nazis during World War II, promising a long and hard road to victory.
In a land that loves its myths and legends, it's no surprise that Scotland’s national animal is the decidedly not-real unicorn.
Unicorns appear throughout Celtic fables and serve as a symbol of both purity and innocence, and masculinity and power. In ancient tales, only virgin maidens or Scottish kings could tame the wild creatures.
King William I first used the unicorn on his coat of arms in the 12th century. King James III placed the one-horned animal on his monies during the 15th century. And in the 16th and 17th centuries, King James VI continued the tradition by placing two unicorns on his shield (he eventually changed one of the animals to a lion when he became King James I of England and Ireland, to show a unified country).
Today, you’ll spot unicorns across the country on weathervanes, building facades and royal palaces.
Wales: Y Ddraig Goch
Another mythical animal that's the national symbol of a Celtic country is the Welsh Dragon, Y Ddraig Goch. Used as a battle standard for King Arthur, the dragon’s appearance was first officially recorded in 829 AD.
When the Tudors came to power in England, the Welsh dragon was used to support the coat of arms topped by the English crown on Henry VII’s banner.
Today, you can “visit” the dragons of Wales at Caerphilly Castle, where detailed models of the creatures in the Dragon’s Lair are turning the 750-year-old monument into a tourist attraction.
Luxembourg, Netherlands & Norway: Lion
It should be no surprise that more than one European nation uses the mighty lion — a symbol of strength, courage and justice — as its national animal. The beast represents several European destinations, including Belgium, the UK and the Czech Republic.
The beast also figures prominently in three well-known coats of arms, in Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway.
Luxembourg’s coat of arms features three lions (one red, two golden) adorned in crowns. The Netherlands features a trio of lions on its coats of arms as well, though all three are a brilliant golden hue. Norway’s royal coat of arms, dating back to 1225, includes a singular lion of gold on a red background. (It apparently didn’t get the three-lion memo.)
Europe isn't the only place to claim the lion as its own. In fact, the beast is the most popular national animal in the world, representing countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Iran and Singapore.
Austria & Germany: Bundesadler
Both Germany and Austria count this mythical eagle as its national animal and symbol.
Used on the coat of arms in the late 1800s, the German version is a black eagle with a red beak, red tongue and red feet on a yellow background — a copy of that which was used by Roman Emperors in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The Austrian version is similar, with one exception: the country changed the feet and beak to yellow when it annexed from Germany in 1938.
Denmark: Tortoiseshell Butterfly
Denmark isn't interested in demonstrating strength through a mighty creature. Instead, its national animal is the tiny tortoiseshell butterfly, simply because it can be found throughout the nation.
With a wing span of up to just 52 millimeters, this butterfly is bright orange with light blue spots on its wings, adding more color to pastures adorned with flowers.
Also representing the people and country is Denmark’s second national animal, the mute swan, one of the largest water birds in the world. This elegant, long-necked swan appears in European fairytales, and can be found across Denmark’s countryside, filled with waterways for the birds to enjoy.
France: Gallic Rooster
The rooster has long been a symbol in France: you’ll find it on ornaments in French provincial kitchens, carved into wooden furniture by folk artists and decorating church bell towers. Roosters are attributed to vigilance, crowing at sunrise each morning, and have ruled the roost in the country since the Middle Ages.
It's this vigilance that helps explain why the rooster became a symbol of the French Revolution — and why even the French Football Federation has used it as its mascot since the 1800s.
Finland: Brown bear
Brown bears have been honored and feared by the Finns for centuries.
Once upon a time, these "Kings of the Forest" were so rampant in the country, they featured prominently in Finland's mythology. They played a role in the 19th-century folklore epic "Kalevala," which is credited with developing the country's national identity and fostering its independence from Russia.
Today, there are only about 1,500 brown bears in the wild here. But they remain an important part of the social fabric; Finns have over 200 different names for the bear in their language, and the animals can be found on totem poles throughout the country.
You can join travel tours that conduct bear-watching trips from April through September to see these formidable creatures up close.
The controversial pastime of bullfighting, along with the Running of the Bulls in Spain, should be a clue to the country’s national animal.
Spain began competing with bulls in medieval days, when knights stopped jousting each other and instead fought bulls. It is said that Charlemagne was a fan of bullfighting in Spain, and Ernest Hemingway famously recorded his fascination with the sport in "Death in the Afternoon."
It’s a strange juxtaposition that Spaniards celebrate their national animal by fighting it, and calls to ban the ancient sport on account of animal cruelty continue to rise.
Bullfighting is banned in Catalonia, home of Barcelona, but most of the country still continues the tradition and legally protects the sport, including in popular tourist cities such as Madrid and Seville.
The unique marten is from the same family as minks and weasels, which means its fur is highly sought after for use in coats.
During the Middle Ages, the pelts of martens were used in trade before the coin was introduced. In fact, the Croatian word for marten is “kuna,” which is the name of the country's currency today.
Martens are also from the same family as skunks, ferrets, badgers and wolverines. Larger than weasels, they like to chew on soft materials. Their gnawing of car tires and cables have cost Central Europe millions of euros in damage – insurance companies even offer marten damage policies!
Monaco: Rabbit, Wood Mouse and Hedgehog
The city state of Monaco is very tiny (it's the second smallest country in Europe), but makes up for its size by boasting not one or two national animals, but three.
That said, all three are less-than-mighty garden nibblers — rabbits, wood mice and hedgehogs.
There's not much backstory here: It seems the country simply chose the most innocent, inoffensive creatures it could think of to represent its culture and people.
The largest of the falcons, majestic white gyrfalcons keep watch over the snow-covered wilderness and coastal waters of Iceland. The country adopted the gyrfalcon as its national animal due to its beauty, power and freedom — apt descriptors for Iceland itself.
The white falcon was worshiped as far back as the Vikings era, and was used in trade during medieval times, when royalty actively sought the beautiful birds.
Today, the falcon appears on the national coat of arms, along with a dragon, a bull and a giant.
Italy: Grey Wolf
The grey wolf, or Apennine Wolf, is an unofficial national animal for Italy.
While the government has not officially adopted the wild animal as its symbol, the wolf plays a significant role in Italian mythology; Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who founded Rome, were said to be raised by a she-wolf.
A famous statue of the twins nursing from their mother wolf, Capitoline Wolf, can be found in Rome at the Palazzo dei Conservatori.
Unfortunately, the real-life Italian wolf is on the verge of extinction due to overhunting.
Switzerland: St. Bernard
For the Swiss, there is no such thing as a national motto, national flower or national animal!
But even if they don’t want to partake in such nonsense, many associate Switzerland with the St. Bernard, which has been protecting the people of Alpine Switzerland since the late 1600s. The dogs were introduced and bred to guard Great St. Bernard hospice, founded by Archdeacon Bernard de Menthon to provide a safe haven for travelers passing through the Western Alps.
In old paintings and cartoons, the dogs can often be seen with alcohol-filled casks around their necks, a nod to them reviving travelers. This iconography was entirely the invention of painter Edwin Landseer, but has nevertheless endured in the country.