February marks the month in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) when a number of species come out of hibernation to fulfill nature’s most primitive desire: to pass on their genes. That is, to breed. Salamanders (order Urodela/Caudata) represent one such group. Although the PNW is accurately known as a gray and wet place plagued with precipitation for much of the year, the winter and spring months (December – May) represent the best breeding conditions for many salamander species.
Due to verdant habitats peppered with many streams and ponds, salamander diversity is relatively high amongst vertebrates in the PNW. We have five salamander families that reside in the PNW (roughly defined as Mendocino County in Northern California north through southeastern Alaska, and east into the mesic forests of Idaho and western Montana): Dicamptodontidae (giant salamanders), Amybstomatidae (mole salamanders), Rhyacotritonidae (torrent salamanders), Salamandridae (newts), and Plenthodontidae (lungless salamanders). Furthermore, we have a number of amphibian species endemic to the region. Tailed frogs (Ascaphidae), torrent salamanders, and giant salamanders are all confined to the PNW (the latter family, however, contains a species that occurs south of the San Francisco Bay); the latter two families each contain a species that is endemic to the Olympic Peninsula (Rhyacotriton olympicus and Dicamptodon copei). Given the prevalence of salamanders in the PNW and their slimy, charming allure, YNS members were excited to observe salamanders in their natural habitat during this special day we’ve termed “Salamander Love Night”!
For this expedition, we were fortunate to have the folks at the Seattle Parks Department give us after-dark access to Camp Long in West Seattle. Though in an urban habitat, this park has a nice small forest setting including small ponds and a small stream. A couple of us knew from previous experiences in this park that we had good potential to see four salamander species during salamander love night: long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum), northwestern salamander (A. gracile), “Ensatina” (Ensatina eschscholtzii oregonensis), and the western red-backed salamander (Plethodon vehiculum); it was most likely to see the former two species actually breeding. And if we were lucky, we would find a giant salamander in this isolated patch of forested habitat.
Rain throughout most of the week leading up to our expedition gave us extra optimism for a successful trip, however, temperatures were a little cool as we met up in the Camp Long parking lot (mid-40s). Just a couple minutes into our walk, we arrived at the first pond. This pond is overshadowed by red alder trees that shed their leaves and create a three-dimensional matrix on the pond bottom that is perfect: full of salamander hiding spots. We soon learned that larval mole salamanders (Ambystoma sp.) despise bright light and quickly to escaped into the alder leaf blanket. Salamander activity in the pond, generally, was low. We saw a few larvae here and there, but the pond was mostly vacant. Soon, however, a couple members spotted amphibian egg masses anchored to sticks in the pond, a placement characteristic of ambystomatids. Better yet, to the natural history observer, we got to witness a female northwestern salamander in the act of laying her eggs!At this point, many YNSers moved to the forest to find salamanders in their terrestrial habitat, though some stayed behind at the pond. Soon, we had found a couple western red-backed, and northwestern salamanders. Many of us were excited because we had not seen these species before! As the group dispersed throughout the nearby forest, we were soon drawn back to the pond’s shore by an excited shout announcing a large salamander had been found. Someone had discovered a pacific giant salamander! Although not an adult, this larva was still impressively large (8-10” total length), causing quite a bit of excitement amongst the group. After being out of the water for a short period of time, the larva started to ooze a white compound full of toxins in defense. At this point, we felt bad for stressing out this individual and returned it back to the water.
For the remainder of the evening, the large group (~45 people!) naturally broke up into smaller groups and flipped logs and rocks in the search of more amphibians. Many of us noticed a variety of small saprobic fungi (Mycelia sp.), lichens (including Evernia prunastri and Lobaria pulmonaria), and arthropods that are commonly seen underneath logs. During this time, we found two Ensatina salamanders, and though not a salamander, some of us also heard a male barred owl (Strix varia)!
Our group did not confirm the sighting of any long-toed salamanders (larval long-toed and northwestern salamanders are difficult to discern), but, we did see the other three species we were anticipating, plus the giant! And although the weather was a little cool for most breeding activity, we did get to see a female actively depositing eggs. This trip was a great experience because many YNSers got to see species they had not yet seen in their life. Furthermore, it reiterated the fact that Seattle is not only surrounded by nature, but also contains a good smattering of natural areas within city limits.