Salamander Season

California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense). Photo: © Ken-ichi Ueda

Salamander season is upon us! While most of the country is hunkering down for several months of ice and snow, coastal California is just getting started for wet winter nature exploration! While we're still in a drought, we have been getting a bit of rain, which means the hills are greening, mushrooms are popping, and, of course, salamanders are on the move! Salamanders, like all amphibians, have water-permeable skin, which means they can't survive long under dry conditions. During the dry seasons of summer and fall, they "estivate," which is like hibernating at the opposite time of year, but when winter rains start falling, they emerge to feed (and breed) at the surface.

The photo above is of a California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense), photographed during last Thursday's rain storm in eastern Alameda County by CCNH members. These animals live in dry grasslands, not exactly where you'd expect to find salamanders, but they survive underground in California Ground Squirrel (Otospermophilus californicus) burrows almost their entire lives... except when they emerge during early winter rains to breed in temporary vernal pools, and that's when you can find them, either in such pools or marching over land on their way to them.

California Tiger Salamander larva from Jepson Prairie Preserve in Solano County. Photo © Ken-ichi Ueda. 

Populations of this salamander in the Central Valley are considered "threatened" by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which means they are on their way to being "endangered" (populations in Sonoma and Santa Barbara have full federal "endangered" status). The main threat to this species is habitat destruction by development, intensive agriculture, and urban sprawl, one of many reasons plans to expand Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area in eastern Alameda County have been controversial. Interestingly, some studies have found that ranch lands make excellent habitat for these salamanders, because they keep the grasslands unpaved and cow ponds provide good breeding habitat (livestock trimming of vegetation around the edges of these ponds might help the salamanders, because it provides less habitat for predacious insects that would otherwise eat their larvae), though again, these claims are controversial because others have found that cattle ponds have different, possibly adverse affects to water chemistry, and controlling squirrel populations in grazed areas may cause a decrease in salamander habitat. Nothing is simple in nature

Of course, the CTS (as biologists often call it), is a pretty uncommon beast, but the woods and even our backyards are full of other spectacular salamanders you can find. Here are just a few (apologies for the Bay Area bias):

Top: California Slender Salamander (© Ken-ichi Ueda), Red-bellied Newt (© Ken-ichi Ueda), California Newt (© Ken-ichi Ueda), Arboreal Salamander (© Ken-ichi Ueda). Bottom: Northwestern Salamander (© Ken-ichi Ueda), Yellow-eyed Ensatina (© Ken-ichi Ueda), Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander (© Tony Iwane), California Giant Salamander (© Ken-ichi Ueda)

If you're interested in learning more about salamanders, we're hosting a Valentines Day Newt Night Hike on February 14, where we'll be looking for newts, frogs, and other amphibians. Details for this event are pending, so keep checking our website for more information or sign up for our mailing list to stay updated about our events!