ECOLOGY BRINGS INTERESTING QUESTIONS

by Whit Gibbons

July 10, 2016

Most environmental questions I receive include photo attachments and are asking for the identification of a particular animal or plant. Some, however, have a little more intrigue wrapped around them. These are a few I have answered.

Q: I have a brown skink exploring between my basement and the first floor of my house. My little 2-year-old almost had a panic attack this morning as she came running to me about a "monster" (This was before I encountered the little skink in the basement just a moment ago.) How can I safely remove this small critter from my house? I have been holding my little girl on my hip all day long because she is so afraid of this skink.

A: The easiest way to remove a brown skink or any lizard native to the Southeast is to catch it by hand (the tail may break off) and put it outside. It might try to bite, but they are so small it does not hurt when they do. As far as the child goes, I would start showing her pictures of lizards and snakes in a book and explaining that they are just a natural part of the world and have no intention of hurting anyone. "Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast" (University of Georgia Press) has lots of photographs of all southeastern lizards. Go outside and look at insects, spiders, birds and other wild things with her. Sometimes children develop fears of certain animals because they have not been taught that most animals mean us no harm.

Q: I saw a video of a cat playing with a dolphin. Both animals seemed to be enjoying themselves. The dolphin even looked like it was smiling. Was this real or some kind of filming trickery?

A: Apparently you have never had a dolphin or a cat for a pet. A dolphin smiles perpetually, not only because it thinks everything it does is funny but because that is the way its head and mouth are shaped. When cats are not sleeping or eating or annoying their owner in some way, they are looking for a plaything - their shadow, a cardboard box, a dolphin. I found the video you're referring to online. That's as real as it gets when dolphins and cats have nothing else to do. The dolphin looks like it is laughing because they like being filmed.

Q: I would like information about a giant salamander from the Trinity Alps that my friends say gets 5 to 8 feet long.

A: As the Trinity Alps are in northern California, people may be referring to the Pacific giant salamander, the largest terrestrial salamander in the country. Some approach a foot in length. If you find any salamander from the western states much larger than that, report it to the nearest zoo. The largest known salamanders in America are aquatic and live in the eastern states. The bulkiest is the hellbender of mountain streams, with a record length of 2.5 feet. The greater siren of the Southeast reaches lengths of over 3 feet. The longest American salamander, the amphiuma, has a record length of almost 4 feet. The world's largest salamander, from Japan, is related to the hellbender and gets more than 5 feet long.

Q: We sometimes see raccoons in our neighborhood, usually at night. Recently, our dog chased a large one across the yard during the daytime. The raccoon got away and the dog was nosing at a very small baby raccoon the mother had dropped. I got the dog inside the house. Later that day, the baby was gone. Would the mother have come back for it?

A: The mother probably came back for the baby, which she would then have carried to safety. Raccoons will not ordinarily protect their babies out in the open, the way bears would, but they will move very young babies from one place to another if they feel threatened.

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