Salamander Surprise

by Rebecca Cheek

(Rebecca lives near the coast at Wandemere, which is along Highway 101 about 0.5 mile north of Ona Beach State Park in Lincoln County, Oregon. This article was published in the October 2001 Sandpiper, the newsletter of Yaquina Birders & Naturalists.)

The afternoon of 9 October 2001 I was working in one of the flower borders, whacking back spent perennials and uncovered a 6.5-inch-long, stocky-bodied brown salamander hiding in the mulch under a plant.

The afternoon was warm and sunny, the weather was (and had been) dry, and that part of the border is one of the droughtiest areas in our yard - altogether an unlikely spot for a salamander. The animal was unmoving, holding its body in a rigid stance with head down, eyes tightly shut, and tail curled, so I wondered if it was injured or suffering from dehydration. I carefully transferred the salamander to a large jar with some damp compost to hide in and brought it in to the reference library for ID.

According to "Amphibians of Washington and Oregon" by W. Leonard (1993), the captive was a Northwestern Salamander (Ambystoma gracile). This species occurs from western British Columbia to northwestern California, and has been found from the coast to just east of the Cascade crest at elevations ranging from sea level to 6,550 feet. The reference notes that the species, though common, is seldom seen due to extensive use of underground burrows. In dry summer weather, Northwestern Salamanders hide in rotting logs, damp crevices, and rodent burrows. This information helped explain why the salamander was where I found it - it was within 3 feet of a rock retaining wall and a big log that is slowly turning into mulch.

The reference also explained that the rigid pose is a defensive posture. Northwestern Salamanders are mildly toxic, and when threatened adopt this head-down, eyes-shut pose and secrete a sticky white poison from glands on the head and back. I never saw anything white on this salamander's skin, so presumably it did not feel sufficiently threatened to secrete poison. In fact, in the space of an hour's detention (until all the household could see it) the salamander rapidly became habituated to our disturbances and no longer assumed the defense posture whenever the jar was moved.

As soon as curiosity was satisfied, we gently returned the salamander to the exact spot where it was found, expecting it to freeze in place again. Instead, the animal immediately scrambled off under the mulch as though it had a definite destination in mind.

I like to think it's still there somewhere, an unseen resident of the flower bed.

Go to Lincoln County (Oregon) Natural History Information

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