|Taken by George Imrie on his farm south of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.|
George has been laboring to provide a safe haven for these creatures.
The ringed salamander (Ambystoma annulatum) is secretive and endemic to the Ozarks. Once upon a time these salamanders were seen by the hundreds each autumn, but now you are lucky to see just one in your lifetime. These endangered amphibians live under log, rocks, and in the ground. Their main defense is to hide themselves away. They have soft black bodies striped with yellow so camouflage fails them. Their tiny legs make it look laborious to walk and they are fairly defenseless especially when as an egg or tadpole. Therefore, they live hidden, eating grubs and worms all year.
Once a year they emerge from hiding to mate and lay eggs in the clean fishless pond they were born in but finding clean water without fish is becoming harder and harder. The mating event always takes place on the first cool rainy night in autumn. This year we had a cool rainy night in late September, but then again this past week we had another similar night. The ringed salamander took advantage of both nights and matted twice this year. Both times, I was lucky enough to see one at the Ozark Natural Science Center where I work as a teacher/naturalist.
This first time I saw a ringed salamander it was trucking across the trail at theOzark Natural Science Center, ONSC, after the students had all been sent to bed in the lodges. Only the teacher naturalists remained awake and we were making our way to bed when we found a salamander out in the open on a trail near the pond. We watched it walk on stubby legs, its long fat tail slithering like a snake’s behind it. I felt privileged to witness its annual journey by night but disappointed that I didn’t have my camera.
The second time was during the day, after the rain we had this past week, when I had a group of students from Bentonville’s Baker Middle School. My group crowded around a log where we had found a ringed salamander hiding. It tried to dig itself to safety at first but eventually gave up and crawled along the ground close to the log. My students, a group of ten 5th graders, were mesmerized. They sat silently watching it with awe and respect. I knew that this was the first time any of them had seen a salamander. Many of them didn’t even know what it was until I told them.
While they watched the salamander, I read and discussed all I knew about the species. I told the children that they only come out once a year, so this is a specially occasion. They lay from 300-500 eggs but 99 percent of those eggs will never mature into adults, many will be eaten as caviar, others as salamander tadpoles, and many more as young adults. The ones that survive will not be able to reproduce until five to eight years of age, which is a long time for such a venerable creature. Also by breathing through their skin any type of pollution in the water or soil will kill them. Their mere existence is a bio indicator of a pollution free environment. As they got to know this fantastic creature, I encouraged them to name it. They couldn't choose between Sally or Steve until I informed them that because it was smaller in size it was most likely a male but it would be hard to be sure. He became Steve the Salamander and with that he was no longer a forigen wild animal but a friend.
The experience changed their perspective immediatly. For the rest of our time together, two days and one night, they were respectful and in awe of everything we found. They named every caterpillar, spider, and millipede we found, befriending all species. An old man once told me, "You can't force children to grow up and protect nature, you have to teach them to love it, then they will WANT to protect it!" I think that Steve the Salamander may have taught these kids such love.