Georgia's state animal is the northern right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, a member of the balaenidae, or baleen, family of whales. Georgia does not have a state land mammal. The right whale is the only great whale native to Georgia. Its calving territory lies within 15 miles of the Georgia coast. The right whale became Georgia's state animal in 1985.
According to tradition, the right whale was so named by whalers of the North Atlantic waters because it was the "right whale" to hunt. The right whale swims slowly near the surface of the water, and it floats after it has been killed. This whale was coveted for its abundant blubber and bones for the manufacture of whale oil, soap, corsets, hairbrush handles and umbrellas. The species was nearly driven to extinction by the end of the 19th century.
By 1935, the right whale population had diminished to alarmingly low levels, becoming one of the rarest whales in the world. The United State government declared the right whale an endangered species in 1970; Georgia listed the creature on the Georgia Endangered Wildlife Act of 1973. As of 2011, Georgia's state animal was still endangered, with estimates of only about 350 right whales living. Whaling is illegal in the area, so most right whale deaths and injuries occur from collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear.
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The right whale is a gentle giant of the North Atlantic seas, reaching 50 feet (15.2 m) in length and weighing 100 tons (90 metric tons) at maturity. Females are larger than the males, and they give birth to one calf every three to four years. The right whale feeds primarily on crustaceans such as krill, copepods and plankton, filtering the small invertebrates through their comb-like, keratin baleen plates that serve as teeth.
The whales spend their summers in the cool waters of the upper North Atlantic coast, from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to the Canadian Maritimes. In winter, the creatures migrate to the Georgian coast to give birth. Their migration corridor converges with the commercial fishing industry waters. This, coupled with the whales' amiable, placid nature and fearlessness of ships, results in accidents that further reduce the right whale population.
Sightings of Georgia's state animal are frequent along the coast during the birthing period in the winter. Survey teams from the state of Georgia conduct flight aerial surveys of the migration and presence of right whales in the North Atlantic waters. Researchers photograph and identify whales in an effort to monitor their activity and lessen fatalities in whale-and-ship collisions. With increased awareness of the tenuous whale population and efforts to protect Georgia's state animal, researchers believe that the right whale species will endure.