About Me

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I am a mother, a teacher, and a nature lover. I grew up on a mountain we called Owls' Knob in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The first seven years of my life were spent living in a log cabin, far from a store or streetlight, without electricity or running water and after twenty years of travel, I returned to the abondoned homestead. Now I live on a hill by a small lake and work at a public garden. These are stories about nature written from a women deeply influenced by place.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Salamander Party

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!
Before long a young girl squealed, "I found one!" I rushed over and was please to see a yellow and black salamander frozen on her palm. I snapped some pictures and looked it up in my favorite amphibian guide: Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri by Tom R. Johnson. When getting the book out I always have to explain to the children that animals don't pay attention to state lines and the land of Northern Arkansas is more like the mountains in southern Missouri than it is like the plains and swamps of southern Arkansas. With the book in hand I identified the salamander as a species of long-tailed salamanders, called the dark-sided salamander (Eurycea longicauda melanpleura). This tiny salamander's tail looked half as long as it should have been which is common because they distract predators by moving their tails. The missing tail can grow back so it is better to loose a tail than a head. These are lungless salamanders and absorb oxygen through their skin; therefore, we decided that the oils on our hands could cause the poor creature to no breathe properly. For the rest of the day we kept our hands off the amphibians.
A slimy salamander and a cave salamander (Eurycea lucifuga)
I had barely finished reading about the dark-sided salamander when a pair of boys managed to lift up a huge flat rock to discover two more salamanders: a bright orange cave salamander and a bluish-black slimy salamander. Though they wanted to touch them, these larger salamanders were much faster and I insisted we did not want to harm them. Like its smaller cousin, the cave salamander is also lungless and can be harmed by the oils on human hands. The slimy salamander (Plethodon albagula) is also lungless but it has an interesting defense, it excretes a whitish gluey substance when handled that its nearly impossible to wash off of hands and clothing.
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)
We walked on in silence. I let it all sink in.
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!"

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this one! I hope to see many more posts about them bc they are my favorite too back in the days when we could go into caves and it wasn't illegal due to the white nose syndrome. I ran onto a bunch of the ozark zig zags at glory hole a couple of weeks ago and have ALWAYS loved them. Awesome photos, awesome blog and fantastic ending Ros:) Keep it up! I always look forward to it:) Wish I could go to work with you.