Sunday, January 30, 2005

Suburban Salamanders

I found a salamander!

I've been renting a room in an Eichler neighborhood in Cupertino for about a year. It was a small housing development in 1961. There are few native plants in the neighborhood other than a stretch of remnant riparian forest along an urban creek a few hundred yards away and several coast live oak street trees on the next street over. There are no native plants in the yard other than a few annual weeds -- western bittercress ("pop weed") and maybe some willow herbs.

A couple days ago, thinking about herps more than usual, I turned over a few things near the entry gate into the yard -- and under a concrete downspout splashpad was delighted to find an adult oak salamander. It was in a low spot it probably dug out for itself -- they seem to be slightly fossorial. I picked it up lightly around the body and set it aside before carefully replacing the splashpad, so it wouldn't be crushed if it attempted to move. There is no significant plant cover anywhere near the splashpad, which is at the corner of a lawn. Lawn watering, I suppose, keeps the area somewhat moist and thus agreeable to salamanders. I've noticed salamanders taking adavantage of irrigation moisture in other yards.

Salamanders are secretive and easily overlooked -- commonly present in suburban yards undetected. This is especially true in older neighborhoods, such as a small yard in Oakland where I encountered both slender and oak salamanders. In the San Francisco Bay area these are the most common and apparently adaptable species. Jerusalem crickets are also common in this yard. No doubt in the days when houses were built one at a time it was easier for such creatures to persist in a neighborhood. When vast acreages are bulldozed to put in a large "housing development" such creatures are destroyed over a large area.

Salamanders seem able to re-colonize more readily than the Jerusalem crickets, which I've never found on sites where I suppose there was widespread clearing. [I suspect they could be re-introduced rather easily]. Oak salamanders, in particular, may survive in place in widely cleared areas where large oaks are spared -- they've been found far above the ground, up to seventy feet, if I recall correctly, in redwood trees, in crotches which have collected leaf litter, or in hollows. Once I found an oak salamander in a nursery plant. When I worked in Texas I found a small snake in a nursery plant, so I suppose that is one way such creatures disperse.

Judging from where I've found them, slender and oak salamanders are quite adaptable. They are among creatures that thrive in "neglected" yards and especially flourish in a native garden. Leaf litter, especially of native oak trees, supports their invertebrate prey, besides creating a friable soil they can more readily find shelter in -- especially if there are rocks, stepping stones or other hiding places. Where leaf litter is thick, there is always some moisture just a few inches down, and usually a softer soil -- cultivated by worms and such -- that even salamanders can dig.

I found slender salamanders especially flourished under a brushpile. In irrigated garden in Cupertino I found oak salamanders had burrowed in the sand under some stepping stones. Perhaps you have salamanders in your yard and don't even know it!

Check my Links to find a site with many photographs of Californian reptiles and amphbians.


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