We live in a very rich area for salamanders and newts. And, when it starts raining, everywhere becomes newt and salamander habitat.
Right nearby, if you went searching, you could find 8 salamander species: Gabilan and California slender salamanders as well as arboreal, California giant, Santa Cruz black, Santa Cruz long-toed, and tiger salamanders, and then the oddly-named yellow-eyed Ensatina. Add to that our two local newt species – rough skinned and Coast Range newts – and you will realize how much there is to learn about these 10 species.
Where do you find these creatures? Well, that depends….let’s start by thinking about their most vulnerable life history stage, when these creatures are teeny tiny eggs.
The newts and some of the salamanders depend on aquatic habitats for breeding, and that’s where they lay their eggs.
Dark, long-lasting, deep shaded ponds are the easiest place to find newts. Interestingly, both the rough skinned and Coast Range newts are found in our area. Some ponds have both species, but other ponds just have one or the other. These newts attach balls of eggs to sticks, roots, and such to make sure that the pre-hatched babies are nurtured in the right depth of water, in the right amount of shade, with the right amount of cover. In the right part of the Monterey Bay, those same egg-laying spots in shady ponds are also coveted by another salamander…the endangered Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, which is found only in southern Santa Cruz and northern Monterey Counties.
Those 2 newt species also can raise babies in warmer, sunny ponds, where another species of salamander is also found. California tiger salamanders love those warm pools, rubbing elbows with western pond turtles, western toads, and California red-legged frogs. These are often grassland ponds managed by ranchers to provide water for cattle. Tiger salamanders like to attach their eggs to pond debris, and you can find their eggs in ponds from southern Santa Cruz County into ponds across Fort Ord and beyond. Our population of California tiger salamanders is protected by the federal government because they have been listed as Threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Spring and Creek Breeding
Those 2 species of amazingly adaptable newts can also raise eggs in stream pools, but streams aren’t the best place for wee newts or salamanders. As you might have seen from this winter, streams get flowing pretty fast, and eggs would soon be headed into the salty sea! So, newts head to streams in the spring as soon as the storms calm down where they raise a summer brood. That spring movement also coincides with the mysterious migration of California giant salamander larvae. The biggest of our local salamanders, the rare California giant salamander probably raises most of its eggs in the muck, under the gravels and among the woody debris of near-stream springs and seeps, safe away from raging floods. Once hatched, the larvae must wriggle and flop downslope into streams. Head upslope, and there are still more odd salamander egg-raising habits.
Eggs Out of Water
A few salamanders raise eggs on what is broadly known as ‘debris,’ but they are probably more picky than we understand. I’ve seen and heard about the rare and only recently described Santa Cruz black salamander tending eggs in gaps on pieces of hard rock…near streams or in moist areas. Those beautiful star-studded sallies are nearly impossible to spot, and there are so few places known that I can’t share a place that you could go to spot them. You are much more likely to encounter arboreal salamanders, maybe even in your neighborhood park if there are native oaks nearby. Those toothy arboreal salamanders place their eggs in moist tree cavities…or ‘in debris.’ Similarly, California (northern Monterey Bay) and Gabilan (central Monterey Bay) slender salamanders place eggs ‘in debris.’ Then there’s the yellow-eyed Ensatina, which I’ve only found in holes and bark of big, rotting moist logs – again ‘debris.’ In case you haven’t gathered – there is a lot to learn about ‘upland’ salamander egg placement and what constitutes nesting ‘debris.’ Share your observations with me on this group, if you’ve seen something interesting!
Groovin’ and Movin’
Their eggs need water or at least moisture-laden debris, but when it is raining newts and salamanders are EVERYWHERE. That’s bad news for them because of the many roads replete with squashing tires of fast-moving vehicles. But, let it rain and adult newts and salamanders take the opportunity to move around, and they sure can move!
In the pouring rain, I’ve encountered California giant salamanders hiking streamside redwood fire roads. In the middle of stormy rainy nights on several occasions, I’ve found arboreal salamanders on my porch. By the second winter of age of a brush pile, slender salamanders have somehow used the cover of drizzly nights to find their way under the stacked branches…hopefully not going to get cooked by a feckless fuel reducing pyromaniac. On those same rainy nights, yellow-eyed Ensatinas stretch their tiny legs to crawl across the forest floor to crawl up and then wedge themselves in just the right rotten bark plate of a 3-year old downed fir.
Meanwhile, the first winter storms see California tiger salamanders hiking along cattle trails in the meadows to find new ground squirrel holes to call home for a while. Because of their rarity, scientists have actually monitored this salamander’s movements…up to 1.2 miles out of ponds and then across the wide-open grasslands! Like tiger salamanders, newts also move far across the uplands. Newts, tiger salamanders, and perhaps Santa Cruz long toed salamanders tend to move in great big groups during the nights of the first biggest rains. Along Carmel Valley Road – and hopefully in more places, soon – you can see signs warning about newt migrations. Migration areas aren’t extensive: they are normally fairly concentrated. Some folks are trying to create underpasses where rare salamanders can safely cross roads…the problem being how to guide them to those narrow culverts or bridges.
They Need Your Help
How can you help our area’s rich newt and salamander diversity? If you live in the country, the first best thing you can do is to not drive at night during the first 3 storms of the winter. You can see the weather forecast…get your groceries early and cancel your evening appointments. Then convince your neighbors and friends to do the same…figure out a way to remember this next rainy season! This past year, the migration was narrowly restricted to the early December storms in our area. Since then, there have been very much fewer newts and salamanders on the roads.
Likewise, watch where you walk in the forest- newts are constantly wandering around dark, moist forest trails all winter.
Oh, and did you catch that need for debris? It seems our inclination to ‘clean up’ debris. Wherever you can keep debris around – logs, sticks, brush – those are newt and salamander habitat. Likewise, for those of you looking to do some fuel reduction, it is best to move the contents of your brush pile, branch by branch, onto a burn pile a few yards away from where it has been stacked for more than a month.
Finally, whenever or however you can…let’s restore more native plants to our landscape- the newts and salamanders all eat bugs and there are more bugs emanating from diverse, native ecosystems.
-This column originally printed by Bruce Bratton in his BrattonOnline.com blog, which contains a wealth of intelligent writing: sign up for a weekly feed!