More a phenomenon than a unified race, spirit animals were created by Vizdane, the little-known god of curiosity. Instead of creating a single godtouched race, Vizdane created the spirit animals as many different species around every corner of Aarn. Specifically, a spirit animal is any "awakened" animal who has the intelligence of a human and the ability to use elemancy. Vizdane created the spirit animals because he wished for independent agents who blended in seamlessly with nature, and could report back to him on how this new world was progressing. It was a great deal of work, granting his power independently to creatures from the lowliest of dragonflies to the largest of whales, but he eventually created a viable breeding pair for virtually every animal species still alive.
Spirit animals themselves had difficulty understanding their patron god. He did instill in them an innate curiosity like his own, but they had difficulty with the fact that curiosity was his only aspect, with nothing deeper. He had no plans, no agendas. He just simply wanted to know, like a voyeur or peeping tom. Eventually, communities of spirit animals began to abandon him one by one and instead worship the One Mother, whose close tie with nature they empathized with far more than the simple curiosity of their progenitor god. They decided to collectively become guardians of nature and help protect the non-sentient animals with which they share their individual forms.
Culturally, spirit animals feel a kinship with all natural creatures and share with them an empathy that allows them to understand the feelings, wants and desires of animals and godtouched alike. Spirit animals can use this empathy to communicate with one another, even across species boundaries, but spirit animals hold no special kinship with one another any farther beyond the kinship they feel with normal animals. They can also communicate with mundane animals using this empathy, the simple drives and consciousnesses of most animals being easily understood in emotional terms. With godtouched, spirit animals can often understand spoken language. They cannot speak it however, being completely anatomically animal. Due to their inability to be understood by most godtouched races, spirit animals tend to be reclusive and hostile towards other godtouched.
Spirit animals have several traits that allow them to more easily propagate themselves and maintain their numbers. For one, spirit animals tend to have a lifespan that reaches into the thousands of years. Two, they can breed with mundane animals of their species type, and the resulting offspring will be spirit animals themselves. Three, spirit animals tend to keep their own numbers low. They breed only minimally, feeling that if their presence in an area grows too large, they would become hunted actively by other godtouched races due to their elemantic powers. This would put their non-magical animal kin at risk, and so they take great pains to remain beneath the radar of people. Four, having been created shortly after Nektos destroyed the afterlife system with his undead curse, spirit animals were given an ability to bypass the afterlife altogether. When they die, they automatically become anima, a type of undead spirit that is limited to stay within 200 feet of the site of their death, but can permanently possess a creature who falls asleep within their very small territory. They can possess any animal and continue their life as a spirit animal, as if they had never died, although they need time for their elemantic powers to grow inside of their new body, and they prefer possessing an animal of their original species. Five, spirit animals who remain anima for a century or more can break free of the site of their death, and become almost as powerful as fey, able to use their magic as effectively as when they were alive. Unbound anima can even recreate a semi-corporeal body for themselves, and "live" a normal life. Most "enchanted" forests in aarn are protected by spirit animals who have progressed this far in anima development, and nature spirits such as kitsune, tanuki, and totem spirits are examples of this rare type of anima.
Spirit animals who have died and become anima can also possess godtouched in the same way they can possess animals, though doing so carries with it a horrible price. That spirit animal permanently loses their empathic abilities and can no longer communicate with animals or other spirit animals. They also lose the ability to ever become an unbound anima if they are killed, and are forever trapped near the site of their most recent death - unless some unwitting creature manages to fall asleep within their sphere of influence. Paradoxically, most godtouched creatures do not recognize the difference between spirit animals who possess other godtouched and spirit animals who become unbound anima. A self-absorbed fox spirit possessing a human is considered a "kitsune" just as much as the legitimate unbound anima protecting the local forest. As a result, those who possess other godtouched are permanently forsaken from any spirit animal community that might exist nearby, due to the bad name they give to spirit animals everywhere.
The souls of godtouched possessed by a spirit animal are immediately sent to the afterlife, as if they had died, and can only be returned with a resurrection spell cast on their corpse. Of course, first the corpse has to be actually created - by killing the spirit animal who has taken that person's body.
Most spirit animals are solitary and choose their mates from local mundane wildlife of their own species. Seldomly, a few will congregate in larger numbers, mating with one another, leading locals to believe the woods are haunted due to the variety of "perfectly normal" animals who all have magical powers. Few spirit animals, like ants, share a group communal soul over an entire community, and thus the superorganism acts as a single spirit animal and a single consciousness despite being made up of hundreds or thousands of individuals. These spirit animals are notoriously and understandably difficult to kill.
There are far more spirit animals in Aarn than any other godtouched is willing to admit. There are occasional spirit animal examples of goblins, giants, and other tribal animals, which can be extremely jarring for the adventurer who stumbles upon a wise and powerful spellcasting goblin. In fact, there are a great many spirit animals who have adopted a civilized life, letting their elemantic powers atrophy and instead learning wizardry and creating an artificial simulacrum human that they control psychically. The third most powerful wizard in the world is in fact a spirit animal who has gone this route. The vast majority of people he deals with thinks he is a powerful human wizard, when in fact, he is the cute little pink rabbit "familiar" who always rides on the wizard's shoulder.
As a clarification, actual familiars are not spirit animals, and are in actuality imprints of the spellcaster's soul put on to a mundane animal pet. As with all things however there are exceptions, and occasionally a spellcaster will form a bond with a genuine spirit animal, who will then pretend to be a familiar. This is extremely rare, however.