SALAMANDERS COULD BE ALL AROUND US
watched in amazement as the prehistoric-looking creature nudged the
mud alongside the creek with its nose and then in seconds vanished beneath
the surface. It was a huge salamander, thick as a beer can and two-feet
long. We were not in Australia, Africa, or South America. In fact, no
such large salamander occurs on any of those continents. We were witnessing
firsthand that local wildlife in the United States can sometimes be
as fascinating as exotic species on a Discovery Channel nature show.
We were watching a greater siren, one of the largest salamanders in
the world, disappear into the bottom sediments of a creek.
Jeff had called earlier to say he had caught a "lamp eel"
in a trap he had set alongside our creek to catch fish. He said the
animal had tiny little legs and some kind of head ornament, which turned
out to be its external gills. When I got to Jeff's house he took me
to the water bucket that he had wisely covered with a plastic top that
he then put a brick on. He wondered if I wanted the critter. He knew
we were doing an inventory of animals in and alongside of the creek.
what he had caught because he noticed that the animal had a pair of
small forelegs but no hind legs, one of the few vertebrates in the world
with such an arrangement of appendages. He said he had only seen one
other lamp eel in his life, when he was a kid, but he knew that they
got big, reaching lengths of more than 3 feet.
down into the cold, dark waters of the bucket and felt a slippery, slimy,
thick-bodied creature slide over my hand. I lifted it up and saw the
red, feathery gills fluttering in the water. Sirens have small mouths,
and I have never heard of one biting a person. We had just added a species
to our list of creek salamandersa greater siren. We had caught
dozens of so-called lesser sirens, a similar species that usually gets
only a foot or so long. But this was the first evidence we had that
the giant species, something we had spent many months looking for, was
actually in the creek.
years we have been surveying the animals in and around that same small
creek and have found many kinds of amphibians. We know that 10 different
species of frogs live there, and seven kinds of salamanders. Frogs are
pretty obvious to most of us, not only because many species come out
in the open so we see them when they jump into a lake in the daytime
or climb on a window and look in at us at night. And frogs that are
not seen are often heard, from the booming bullfrogs and chattering
leopard frogs of summer to the higher-pitched chirps of spring peepers
and other chorus frogs in winter. Frogs let you know they are around.
however, are silent, and few come out in daytime, being more likely
to travel overland at night in the rain. Salamanders could even be thought
of as shy, although their real agenda is keeping out of sight of predators
that would readily eat a slow-moving soft-bodied morsel. In fact, of
the hundreds of salamanders we have found in our surveys along the creek,
we have never found one that was not under a log, board or some other
groundcover. Animals that are so secretive as to seldom be seen do not
receive the attention that more ostentatious species do. But they still
deserve our appreciation when we get to meet them.
As I watched
the greater siren slip silently beneath the mud, I marveled that such
an animal could be in our midst without our being aware of it. And I
wondered what other surprises the creek might hold in store for us.
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