Saturday, November 13, 2010

Scott recently remarked on his growing appreciation for salamanders (this is a big deal if you know Scott, who is usually a major reptile chauvinist), pointing out the satisfaction of fixing our herping activities to their life cycles. I think we do this for reptiles as well - for example when I target female timber rattlers (Crotalus horridus) in the summer as they bask to warm the babies growing within them - but this sort of life cycle herping is more pronounced for the amphibians, and in particular for the mole salamanders (genus Ambystoma), aptly named for the subterranean lifestyle that makes them generally inaccessible, except for when they breed.

We seek the enormous tiger salamanders (A. tigrinum) in the winter rains that top off the vernal pools, the garishly-patterned spotted salamanders (A. maculatum) in the March showers that break the grip of winter, and in the fall we seek the marbled salamanders (A. opacum) waiting for the autumn rains that remind us that those dark-soil depressions in the woods hold water for half the year.

Somehow when I went out on Saturday I thought I might find spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) at a beloved patch of woods where we find them in the spring. I should have known the pools would be too dry.

Here's a pool as it was in spring:

Here's the same pool last weekend:

Dry vernal pools in November mean there might be salamanders to uncover, though, so I decided to make the best of the situation and flip logs.

First and most numerous were the red backs (Plethodon cinereus), still a pleasure to find (they'll be annoying me in the spring when I'm sick of them and lusting after other quarry):

Finally one of the logs revealed something besides a red back or just nothing:

When the other local Ambystoma salamanders breed in their wet, explosive orgies, the marbled salamander babies will be swimming around, waiting for their cousins to hatch... so they can eat them. The marbled salamanders get to the pools and mate before the pools are even pools. The females pick a spot that will soon be underwater, lay their eggs, and then guard them until the water rises to where they are. At that point the eggs hatch and the larvae (kind of like tadpoles) swim away and get started on growing.

See all those eggs underneath her?

Another log right nearby revealed another marbled salamander, this one in a position that made it easier for me to pluck her up for a closer look.

I was about to write that "I know better than to anthropomorphize," but you know what? I don't. Although I don't think we can ascribe human thoughts to non-human animals, I do think that the same basic instincts drive us, so that when we see these salamanders guarding those eggs, we can say that they're feeling protective, or even maternal. I think they get angry when they see a hungry cricket come at the nest, terrified when an enormous monster lifts the roof off.

In that spirit of sympathy for the tough little women of the salamander world, I stopped looking under logs. Two was enough. I was also getting a little unsure of how well I was replacing the logs on top of the nests. Ordinarily the rule is replace the cover object, then release the herp. That way no one gets smooshed, and the critter will find its way back under on her own. In these two cases, however, I wasn't so sure she'd get back under with her eggs, so I put the logs back down on top of the salamanders and their eggs. I did it very slowly and very carefully, but I was still caught between the fear of crushing them and the concern that I would leave too much space around them, possibly letting the nest dry out too much.

I wished all the other marbled salamanders well in their rain vigils and hiked back to the car.


Amber Coakley said...

Billy - I'm so glad you wrote this post. I believe that "anthropomorphizing" is exactly what we should do in order to empathize with the animals around us. I'm talking basics - survival instincts, etc - like you say. When we fail to regard other animals with "human decency," we do them and ourselves a disservice. When I read that you decided to stop lifting logs, and your reasons why, I let out a little cheer. I always look hopefully for herps when I'm out in nature, but almost always stop short of lifting logs or rocks, or even disturbing plants & grasses. I never want to harm, only observe and appreciate...and marvel at what I see. I have to admit that I am so glad to hear a "real herper" express the same sentiment that I have felt.

Those marbled salamanders are handsome creatures - I have a feeling they will be just fine.

Bernard Brown said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment Amber. I think we can go too far in assuming animals think like us, but I think we share the basic emotions and impulses.

I need to admit, though, that I'm not going to stop lifting rocks and logs. I think that in most places, in most circumstances, that carefully lifting and then carefully replacing cover is a low-impact activity (I've read information that poorly replacing cover can cause problems).