Sunday, January 4, 2015

Commander Salamander

Daniel Portik, Sean Reilly, David Wake, Michelle Koo of University of California - Berkeley,
Ranger John Lloyd, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District   
On a drippy day in February 2010, we assembled a team of experts in the field to confirm the amateur-level observation of red-bellied newts in Santa Clara County, California. I lead Sean Reilly and Daniel Portik, two graduate students at the University of California - Berkeley, on a long hike down the west side of the Stevens Creek watershed. Ranger John Lloyd drove Dr. David Wake and Michelle Koo of Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology to a trailhead on the easterly side of the watershed where they hiked a final leg into the same canyon across a different set of tributaries. Our goal was to meet somewhere on the trail, hopefully where one group was busily cataloguing lots of red-bellied newts, or so I nervously joked.

I was honored to be working with Dr. Wake and the MVZ team. Affectionately referred to as Commander Salamander by his students, Dr. David B. Wake has been a professor in the biological sciences for fifty years mostly at UC-Berkeley, and was the Director at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology for 27 years. His research has primarily focused on the evolution and development of amphibians and reptiles with a special emphasis on salamanders.

Some of his most noteworthy publications have been about Ensatina salamanders as a 'ring species complex' and how ecological environments, geologic barriers, time and genetic divergence have variously influenced the development of differently colored Ensatina subspecies surrounding the Central Valley of California (Pereira et al, 2011). In recent years, Dr. Wake has also written about the worldwide decline of amphibian populations and has been instrumental in the development of salamander information on the Tree of Life Web Project and AmphibiaWeb.

If this sunny-side botanist was going dive into a controversy about rare salamanders, this was a top-notch team to explore the dark forest ahead.

Yellow-eyed ensatinas were the only subspecies of ensatinas we found in Stevens Canyon   
Hiking down a trail is not a bad way to meet someone. In typical herper fashion, Sean and Daniel kept tipping up rocks and logs looking for amphibians and reptiles. They had a decent hit rate and showed me the yellow-eyed subspecies of Ensatina, a Pacific ring-necked snake, and California slender salamanders.

The dark side of a Pacific ring-necked snake   
Bright warning undersides of California newt and Pacific ring-necked snake. A predator would die if it swallowed the first, but not the second. When you consider the darkness of the forest floor, cover objects, and underground habitats of these two herps, perhaps these could be examples of aposematic coloring and Batesian mimicry. Note the 4 toes on the front and 5 toes on the hind feet of the newt - the normal condition to compare to next photo.   
Sean explained ring theory and his work on black salamanders in northern California. Occasionally, we saw a California newt trundling down the trail including one that had an extra toe and a flange of webbing on its left hind limb, neither of which seemed to hinder its progress through the jumbled forest litter.

Unusual six toes on left hind foot of California newt.   
Unusual webbing behind left hind foot of same California newt.   
Still, no red-bellied newts.

I tried to fill the gaps between herps with stories about my recent exciting encounters with mountain lions on local rangelands, but grassland adventures held no weight underneath the looming Douglas firs and we continued our downward march poking under moist objects. I was amazed at how many hidden animals these two researchers were finding in a forest that I formerly considered dark and boring.

Finally we got to the sharp turn on the trail where we most often had seen red-bellied newts on our previous surveys. We spread out to search and I made a beeline to a small ditch alongside the trail, while Daniel went uphill and Sean went downhill.

Sharp-eyed Daniel found the first two red-bellied newts of the day.   
Suddenly, Daniel shouted from the other side of the trail, "Here's one!" We clustered around him and eyeballed the specimen in his large, freckled hands. Waving its tiny red palms in the air, yes, it was a red-bellied newt. Whew! After dragging these experts across San Francisco Bay and miles down a muddy trail, I was relieved that we hadn't got skunked. Within a few minutes, Daniel found another red-bellied newt. This put the pressure on the rest of us and we continued searching the wet understory, but soon it was time to check in with the other wing of the Berkeley team.

A second red-bellied newt - a fine adult specimen.   
Depending on who was seeing the most red-bellied newts, we would decide on our next move. We didn't expect cellphone coverage, so I had brought a handheld park radio. I connected with the ranger and then passed the radio to Sean to report our sightings to Dr. Wake. Reception was spotty in the deep canyon. They replied that they had not found any red-bellied newts yet, but we weren't sure if they heard Sean's final relay - that we had found two red-bellied newts and would meet them at the trail intersection. Sean carefully collected one of the newts, padded it into his backpack and we continued hiking downhill.

Commander Salamander in the field   
At the bottom of the trail in mist along the banks of Stevens Creek, both groups gathered around Commander Salamander. The eastside team was relieved to know they heard the radio transmission correctly - the westside team had found two red-bellied newts - and that we had brought one for everyone to see. Sean pulled the collection bag out of his backpack and ceremoniously handed it to Dr. Wake. I knew what was in that bag, I was a hundred percent confident, but after nine months of phone calls and rebuffs from other experts, this was the moment.

With only the sound of the creek behind us, we waited and zipped up our jackets as we cooled off from the long hike. Looking pensive, Dr. Wake carefully examined the small creature, turned it over several times, and tapped its tiny feet in silence.

Finally we asked, "Is it a red-bellied newt?"

Dr. Wake looked up with a bright smile and responded, "Absolutely!"

Grinning, I nudged Ranger John in the ribs and in my head did an imaginary jig in the creek.

Herpetologists expect to be wet and cold in the field with beautiful surroundings and sometimes with wonderful surprises about the diversity of life.   
After comparing the forested condition of the hillsides on the west side of the watershed versus the grassy slopes on the east side, it was time to head back. The split parties decided to retrace their steps. I was slower on the steep way up and Sean and Patrick compared their recent research trips in Indonesia and Africa as they continued to peek under rocks and logs of this California forest.

By the afternoon, few newts of any type were out.   
Sean found a juvenile and an adult red-bellied newt on our ascent and one of those joined the first one in his pack to be entered into the permanent MVZ collection and provide genetic material to compare the Stevens Creek population to the northerly population. There was a good chance that new analytical tools could determine if this population was unique or was closely related to and therefore probably introduced from a watershed in the northern counties. Daniel, who was going to conduct the genetic analysis, would have his hands full.

Juvenile yellow-eyed ensatinas - spotted jewels barely larger than a Douglas fir needle or a fingernail.   
Near the end of our hike, Daniel poked through a rockfall and found a cluster of juvenile ensatinas with shiny dark orange skin and tiny light blue spots. In the hands of the herp experts, the Stevens Creek watershed was a salamander haven.

With the exception of the two red-bellied newts which were collected to provide genetic samples to determine the origin of this unusual population, all animals were gently placed back in their original habitat.   
Back at the trailhead, I watched the two Stevens Creek red-bellied newts zoom north towards Berkeley with the graduate students. I sent up a prayer of gratitude for the sacrifice they were about to make. Little did I know how long it would take to untangle their genetic secrets.

To be continued as Of Salamanders and Men.

This post is the seventh in a series on the discovery of red-bellied newts in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. To start at the beginning of the series go to Mystery of the Red-Bellied Newt.

Red-bellied newt, Taricha rivularis
Pacific ring-necked snake, Diadophis punctatus amabilis
Yellow-eyed ensatina, Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica
California slender salamander, Batrachoseps attenuatus
Black salamander, Aneides flavipuncatatus
California newt, Taricha torosa

See also:

Pereira, Ricardo J, William B Monahan, David B Wake, 2011, Predictors for reproductive isolation in a ring species complex following genetic and ecological divergence, BMC Evolutionary Biology, 11:194,


  1. love reading this tale slowly unfold

  2. Thanks, Christian. I've been intrigued by this for five years, so I thought it was time to share.

  3. What a great read! The story is interesting and the writing is excellent.


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