Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Salamander season: open

While walking in Powder Canyon today with fellow Habitat Authority staffer Suzanne Avila, I mentioned that last week's heavy rains probably pushed some salamanders up to the surface. Flipping over my first piece of fallen oak bark revealed a tiny black-bellied slender-salamander curled up in its typical pretzel shape.

These worm-like amphibians (genus = Batrachoseps) are among the smallest vertebrates out there, and California boasts nearly all of the known species, from the garden slender-salamander you might find in your backyard if your property was never graded, to isolated races and even full species still being discovered in out-of-the-way spots in the southern Sierra Nevada.

Here in the Puente Hills, it's just the black-bellied (Batrachoseps nigriventris), which makes a living on shady, moist slopes under thick layers of leaf litter (mainly oak and toyon), though they do range into chaparral and even coastal sage scrub. During the summer and fall, it seems almost unbelievable that they're around, as the same dusty leaves crackle underfoot. But after a few good soaking rains, they emerge from inactivity to feed on slugs, spiders, and other tiny critters beneath slabs of bark or light rocks.

Of course, this is ecology, and everything's connected, so what eats them? Turns out it's a little snake, the ring-necked snake, a dark, slender (and totally harmless) serpent with a bright pink belly and a fondness for shady oak woodland.