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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Digging with Mole Salamanders

by Jack Nisbet

On a field trip along Calispell Creek last spring, one student trapped a little salamander in his baseball cap. It sat in the palm of his hand and let everyone watch it--a jewel of a creature with starry black sides and a greasy greenish stripe down its back, longer than your little finger, with four delicate elongated toes on its front legs and five on the hind. As he stood there showing off his prize, the whole class gathered around and began to tell stories about it. Kids from the Pend Oreille, like kids all over the world, know salamanders.

One girl had seen them creep around the edges of her family’s shallow well up in the hills. Another had just uncovered two behind a front-porch flower pot. A curious boy had tracked one across March’s melting snow for a whole afternoon, trying to discover where the animals could have spent the frozen months. Someone who lived near a warm artesian spring went outside in January and found salamanders of all shapes and sizes swimming in the clear water. Two brothers had brought a captured salamander inside their house and lost it, only to have it reappear months later in front of a heating vent, perfectly mummified. One kid lectured us on the way they can regenerate lost tails and toes, and several more knew you couldn’t beat salamander larvae as bait when it came to catching fish.

The Columbia long-toed salamander we were looking at belongs to a group known as mole salamanders. Fittingly enough, they spend most of their lives in a terrestrial phase, underground in borrowed burrows, basements, or rockslide crannies. There they prey on anything small enough to catch, remaining active all year around. This salamander can shake an earthworm in its toothless mouth like a dog on a rag doll.

As winter begins to wane, some unknown cue drives every long-toed salamander --males first, then females--on a journey toward the body of water where it spent its larval stage. This migration can result in sightings of determined critters sledging over crusts of deep snow toward their destination. The passage continues for a few short weeks, and choice ponds or ditches can get crowded with chaotic activity.

In a wild mating ritual, males pummel each other for the right to embrace a dancing female. One who gains position will rub its chin across the back of the female’s head, releasing secretions from a specialized gland that relax her movements. He then releases his grip, floats forward over her head, and drops a single spermatophore. The female hovers over the sphere, arching tail to extract and store the seminal fluid that will fertilize her eggs. If successful, within a few days she will be attaching sticky loose clumps of eggs to vegetation in the pond. Only a couple of weeks after that, floods of salamander polywogs breath life into the water with their short, bristling gills. By mid-summer a small number of surviving larvae transform into adults and trudge away from the pond to find a solitary secret home.

Mole salamanders occur only in the New World, and their earliest known fossils date back to 50 million years before the present.These ancient bones exactly match those of the modern tiger salamander, a stocky creature with a wide head and splotchy pattern. Tigers are the largest and most widely distributed mole salamander, growing to a foot or more in length and ranging from the great valley of central Mexico to the Canadian Rockies. Yet here in the Pacific Northwest, its much smaller long-toed cousin ranges further north into Canada, climbs higher up into the mountains, and crosses the Cascade Range to inhabit Pacific Coast rain forests.

While other amphibian populations around the world have been isolated or destroyed, in eastern Washington both long-toed and tiger salamanders remain available to any kid with a curious streak. It is not unusual to find larvae of both species living together in alkaline ponds in the Columbia Basin, and although no one talks about tiger salamanders in Pend Oreille County, there are good records of them from gardens and basements in the Colville Valley. All salamanders like it wet and cool, so why shouldn’t tigers occur in the Pend Oreille? Later this winter, as the first sloppy days of warm rain and snowmelt begin to take hold, every kid should search their own springs and basements, puddles and ponds, to see exactly what is in there prowling around.

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