Saturday, January 17, 2009

Christmas found us again in Roswell, Georgia, a suburb to the north of Atlanta. It's not a bad place to be herping in the dead of winter. It gets cold there, but not quite cold enough to freeze over bodies of water.

Since I'll always herp if there's a worthwhile spot nearby, each time I'm down I take advantage of two nice pieces of real estate near the house - there's the ravine out behind the house, and then there's a nice wooded park a mile away from the house.

In both spots I've been having trouble identifying the salamanders - not just one time, not just two times, but for three or four years of Christmas herping trips I haven't been able to figure out what kind of salamanders I was catching. I knew they were dusky salamanders (genus Desmognathus), a group of stream-side/stream-bed salamanders that can be hard to tell apart.

When we used to go flip rocks in the North Georgia mountains there were sometimes four or five species of duskies to choose from, but in Roswell there are only two, which means this should be easy. The contestants are the spotted dusky (D. fuscus conanti) and the seal salamander (D. monticola).

The spotted dusky is basically a variation of our own common dusky, but supposedly with a more strongly spotted pattern down the back. The seal is a bigger salamander, usually with a lighter, wormy kind of pattern.

Unfortunately what I've been catching have been dark salamanders with only a faint pattern on dark gray backgrounds, so the dorsal (back) patterns haven't been any help at all.

Last year (and again in September) I took photos of these unhelpful salamander backs and discovered that the easiest way to tell the two species apart is their bellies (seal have solid colored bellies, dusky have mottled). Great. I didn't have any shots of the bellies, but I was really leaning seal, so that's what I wrote down.

On Christmas Day I went for an afternoon walk in the park (sunny and 60 degrees - not a bad Christmas) and flipped rocks along the creek. Here's a shot of a rock that hid a salamander, and in the second photo you can see the salamander's burrow that drops it down into the water to get away.

I caught two of the squirmy guys, one a thick, beefy looking salamander like a lot of the ones I catch in the stream.

To be sure I got all the necessary photos, this year I pinned two of these squirmy little salamanders down for some quality photos - careful shots of their backs AND of their little salamander bellies. What did I find?

The patterns on the backs look a little vague to me, but the bellies are definitely mottled. I've been catching spotted duskies, even if they don't look very spotted.

A few days later, on a wet, slightly cooler (55 degrees) December 28th, Jen and I headed back behind the house into the ravine. We didn't find any duskies, but we were also looking for a mystery salamander Jen had seen on an earlier trip. She didn't know what it was, but she knew it wasn't a southern redback (Plethodon serratus) and it wasn't a dusky - this was a bigger salamander, maybe a slimy (Plethodon glutinosis).

It turns out she was right. We caught four in about twenty minutes.

Last, we also found this little bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) under a rock next to the stream.