Masthead: Kaweah Range

Sierra Nature Notes, Volume 1, February 2001

Searching for Slender Salamanders:
Adventures in Log-rolling and Rock-Flipping

by John Romansic, Zoology Department, University of Washington

Last spring I took several field trips into the Sierra Nevada to collect salamanders for an ongoing study of salamander diversity and evolution in Yosemite and Sequioa & Kings Canyon National Parks. Lead investigators David Wake, Vance Vredenburg, and Shawn Kuchta of the University of California, Berkeley and David Graber and Harold Werner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are charting geographic ranges and examining patterns of evolution among these species.

For the slender salamanders, genus Batrachoseps, these evolutionary
patterns are very complicated; David Wake and colleagues continually make new species designations as they work out the finer points. Here I give some highlights of some trips I took, mostly alone, to sites critical for resolving the relationships between these species. Slender Salamanders are tiny-legged, worm-like creatures that can be exceedingly difficult to find in the Sierra, and I had quite a go of it. They spend most of their lives hidden away under rocks, under or inside logs, or in other such cool, moist, dark retreats. If you can’t quite remember what it is like to be a child rolling over rocks in search of worms, rollie-pollies, and other exotic critters. I hope my description will show you what it is like to hunt for these cryptic and reclusive mountain dwellers.

Ash Mountain, Sequoia National Park
Since two different Batrachoseps species co-occur here, B. gregarius and B. kawia, Ash Mountain comprises a critical area for studying their evolution.

The elusive Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps gregarius).
Photo by Duncan Parks, Amphibia Web

27 April, Paradise Creek, Sequioa National Park, elevation 3,000 ft.
I already know first-hand how difficult finding Batrachoseps in the Sierra Nevada can be. On previous excursions I've casually rolled quite a few rocks and logs and never once got lucky. However, I am absolutely determined now and I concentrate on my search-image of the precious Batrachoseps. In my vision I roll over a soggy, rotting, moss-covered log to uncover a mystical terrain of moist humus, sprouts, mold and mushrooms. Against this background my eyes seize the faint shine of a cool, long, dark body delicately poised in thin, ribbony curves. Judging by the unusual golden spots on its back, it must be an exotic salamander no one has ever seen before! Got to concentrate, though: as I wonder what to name it, I am oblivious to reality. Wearing a thin armor of rain gear, I've been foolishly bushwhacking through a poison oak hillside canopied with mixed live oak and buckeye trees as I turn every rock and log that looks like it might serve as a salamander refuge. Alas, I find no Batrachoseps, but before dark I do catch the flash of large southern alligator lizard dashing away from me as I rustle across some leaf litter. I know that poison oak will hit me hard and in a few days I'll be scratching myself raw. However, dedicated research scientist that I am, that doesn't seem important now.

28 April, Sycamore Creek, about 1 mi. west of Ash Mountain, elevation 2,000 ft.
The first rock I lift uncovers a common kingsnake starting to swallow a recently subdued western fence lizard. Seeing me, the snake forgets about its meal and retreats under an adjacent rock. I put the snake's hiding spot back together as best I can and continue downstream. Along the creek, I find wet soil and inviting beds of moisture-loving vegetation. But I’m finding few logs in my swath and not many stones, so I'm not sure where a salamander would be hiding. I rake my fingers through the damp leaf litter and pick through stacks of rotting bark, trying not to leave behind too much destruction. No luck so far, but then again these the Batrachoseps of this district might prefer different habitat, so I work my way up and down a few of the slick, muddy creek banks, rooting through the loose vegetation and pulling up the corners of thick green blankets of moss. Still no Batrachoseps! I decide to return to the snake's rock and check on it. I find it still there, but this time it's coiled and starts vibrating its tail, imitating a rattlesnake. The lizard, still nearby, shows signs of life and starts to squirm off, then collapses. As I try to put the rock back, the snake must think I'm trying to smash it because it starts striking at me. It makes several feints and lunges before I realize I should forget about rebuilding its house and let it be. I continue uphill and find yet more lush poison oak and a blue-tailed juvenile western skink, but still no salamanders.

Kaweah River, about 2 mi. southwest of Hospital Rock, elevation 2,400 ft.
I find a series of small streams flowing down the hillside towards the river. It's very wet under the forest debris and I'm feeling energy. I start lifting logs and rocks with gusto, moving like a whirling dervish. It is quite a workout. But I always do the best I can to put the rocks and logs back in the ground the way they were before I got there, so that I do not destroy the habitat for the salamanders and other creatures that live under them. I also know that you're supposed to lift and roll everything towards you, so that any rattlesnakes you uncover have a chance to flee and don’t find themselves backed into a corner. But I have six arms and I'm moving fast. I lift up the edge of large piece of bark and for an instant I'm looking at a coiled-up western rattlesnake at close range and almost simultaneously I put the bark back down, gently. The snake never moved, and I wonder if it noticed me. I continue my search, this time with more care, and just at dusk I find a long branch half-embedded in the wet leaf litter. After two long days of turning logs I know this is the one and when I pop it off the ground I give a spontaneous battle cry. The Batrachoseps is curled up loosely like a millipede, and remains motionless when I pick it up. These critters have been known to bounce around like a spring when surprised, or play dead, or even to throw off their tails in a desperate attempt to distract their enemy. This one remains motionless in my hand.

Redwood Canyon is known to harbor Ensatina, a common Sierran salamander very interesting in its own right. But there exist no records of Batrachoseps from Redwood Canyon. Do they live here? Will I be able to find one?

The ever-cuddly Ensatina eschscholzii platensis amongst the moss.
Photo by Adam P. Summers, Amphibia Web

11 May Redwood Canyon, Kings Canyon National Park, elev. 5,000 ft.

This is my fourth day of hard searching along Redwood Creek and its tributaries. The ground under the giant redwood and cedar trees is piled high and far with pieces of wood, bark, and logs, including several daunting obstacle courses of enormous tree trunks. Batrachoseps could be living under any of this jungle of debris. I wonder if they hide only under the most immovable masses of giant logs. The forest is still very damp, and there are Ensatina galore. They are the Sierran form, platensis, and have dark brown background coloration with bright orange blotches. I find one about ever five minutes under or inside a log. However, I start to feel like I should be looking for ants, millipedes, and beetles, because they are the most common finds. These deserve attention, but I have no time for them on my quest for Batrachoseps.

Searching at the southern end of the canyon I find a nest of about 23 Ensatina eggs just below the surface of a rotting cedar log. The eggs, about 3 mm in diameter and opaque white, are clumped together like a bunch of grapes. I forgot to bring my camera. I cover the eggs back up, not knowing that I am extremely lucky to have found a nest. I still have not found any Batrachoseps here, although two trail crew gave me a tip, telling me to go to the town of Pinehurst for the wormy ones. On my way back up the canyon at sundown, I meet a hiker walking in the opposite direction. I take the time to explain what I’m doing and I ask her if she wants to see a juvenile Ensatina. Hey, Salamanders could use some exposure! I found it under a log earlier today, and yes, it's still hiding out under the exact same log. She is impressed. It’s dark brown body is speckled with fine, bright orange dots. Its upper legs are bright orange and stand out against its dark back and forelimbs in a stylish sort of way. Pretty fancy for a creepy-crawlie.

Giving up the search in Redwood Canyon for now, I decide to follow the advice of the locals and look for Batrachoseps on the outskirts of the small foothill town of Pinehurst.

12 May 2000, Cedar Brook, Sequioa National Forest Picnic Area, Pinehurst, CA, elevation 4,200 ft.
I arrive here in twilight. Cedar, live oak, and black oak woodland lines the brook, and patches of miner's lettuce and wildflowers grow under the trees. The Force is strong here – I feel the presence of Batrachoseps. Under the rocks and logs the soil is moist, and after 30 minutes I find a Batrachoseps under a log embedded in a thick mat of miner's lettuce. The salamander remains completely motionless as I pick it up. I know that Batrachoseps sometimes play dead when frightened, nevertheless, I am truly worried that I just scared the life out of this one. But now I notice the fluttering of its throat. Quite a performance, but not good enough.

Summit Meadow: In the beginning of this century, a salamander was found here and collected. The specimen was destroyed when the museum it was housed in burned down. Now David Wake wants to know which species of Batrachoseps it is that inhabits this alpine meadow. Biologist Tamí Mott has backpacked up here with me to help me search.

21 May 2000, Summit Meadow, Sequoia National Forest, elevation 7,920 feet.
The meadow is about 1.5 km long and 300 m wide. The snowline is at about 8,000 ft., and the meadow is completely melted out. Basically, Summit Meadow right now is a large, shallow puddle of grass and sedge with several slow, shallow streams meandering through it. We’ve been searching under the logs and woody debris along the edge of the giant puddle for 4 hours. I try to pick a promising-looking log out of the ground, but the log is too rotten and the top rips off, revealing a Batrachoseps sitting there nonchalantly despite the fact that I just ripped the roof off of its home. I let out a yelp of joy. Tamí rushes over and as she and I carefully pick through the rotting log she sees another one. It tried to escape by burrowing into a crack in the log, however, she digs it out and now we have two. After another 30 minutes of searching, we find no more salamanders and decide to head back down to camp. Along the trail we come upon a southern alligator lizard biting one of its own on the head, and we wonder whether this is courtship, or two belligerent males fighting? The biter drags the other lizard into the brush, its jaws still around the other's skull. As we carry the two salamanders back with us down the trail, I hope that what we learn from them will help us respect their claim to the Sierra. According to David Wake, their genetic sequences show that they’ve been living here since before the last period of glaciation.

Acknowlegement: I thank Dr. David Wake for several conversations in which we discussed his research on salamander evolution. Thanks also to him and Vance Vredenburg for giving me the opportunity go on these salamander-hunting adventures.

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