|Dark-sided salamander (Eurycea longicauda melanpleura)|
Lately I have been finding lots of salamanders at the Ozark Natural Science Center where I work out on the trail with children. It is amazing how few children have ever seen a salamander. Many of them ask me what a salamander IS when I tell them we are going to look for them. I try to explain that salamanders are amphibians but are shaped a bit like a lizard. Truly, they are nothing like lizards. Reptiles are fast on their feet and have the sharp eyes of a predator. The salamander has short stubby legs and it walks awkwardly, as if it is trying to swim or slither but its legs are in the way. In the water, salamander move with the grace and fluidity of a water snake, well really more like a leech. Though you make not think a leech can be graceful, when a large leech swims it looks like a rippling ribbon. Salamanders ripple similarly, like a silk rope.
I had heard that a group of children had spotted a group of cave salamanders near the mouth of Counterfeit Cave the day before. So I hiked with my group of a dozen fifth graders across the river and up the mountain at the Ozark Natural Science Center in search of the cave salamanders. When we arrive at the bluff shelter and began exploring the mouth of the shallow cave there, I told the children to look under rocks with me if they wanted to find salamanders. I did not know if we would find any but I had high hopes.
|A dark-sided salamandert, missing much of its tail!|
|A slimy salamander and a cave salamander (Eurycea lucifuga)|
While reading about these salamanders, a curious boy flipped over another rock a little further away from the mouth of the cave to discover a zig zag salamander. Both the slimy and the zig zag salamanders are in the Plethodon genus. All Plethodon salamanders lay eggs in underground caves or crevices where they protect their babies until they hatch out as tiny salamanders, skipping an aquatic tadpole stage! (Read more about Plethodon's here!)
I felt lucky to have seen so many salamanders in one day. But as we hiked back down the mountain I heard a girl say, "It is easy to find salamanders, you just have to look under rocks!"
I stopped walking and turned to the children for a final lesson.
"All these salamanders you saw today are in danger of becoming endangered. Amphibians, especially lung-less salamanders are very sensitive to pollution. They are the first to go when an environment is disturbed. All over salamander habitats are being destroyed by cities, buildings, roads and landscaping. All types of pollution is killing them too. Because they eat insects, and people use pesticides to kill insects, all types of pesticides can kill them too. Even the acidity from pine and cedar trees can make their aquatic home too acidic. Also, the fish people populate ponds with will eat amphibian eggs. Salamander populations are decreasing for many reasons. If we don't protect their habitat, they will not survive. They will become extinct."
|Ozark Zig Zag Salamander (Plethodon angusticlavius)|
Then a boy asked me, "What would happen if we did not have nature."
"We could not exist," I answered solemnly.
"Because we ARE nature," another boy said.
I turned to him and smiled, "You are SO right!"