Salamander Season

Meet Ensatina eschscholtzii, the Ensatina Salamander.  I found this one under a large piece of bark on the North Trail in the Kukutali Preserve.  It was about 5 inches/13 cm long and didn't move a muscle when it was exposed.  A map showing location is linked at the bottom of this post.  I don't believe I have ever seen one of these before making this an important find for me.

Ensatina means "like a sword."  Eschscholtzii may refer to Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, a nineteenth century physician and naturalist who explored Alaska and California.

Initially, I misidentified this guy as a Northwestern Salamander (Ambystoma gracile).  But that species has large parotid glands behind the eyes.  My salamander does not.  What clinched the ID was the obvious constriction at the base of the tail, unique among Washington salamanders.  It is clearly visible in the photo.  This little amphibian has some other unusual characteristics:
  • They do not have lungs.  Instead, they absorb oxygen through their skin.
  • They secrete a noxious liquid from their tails to repel their enemies.
  • They are described as a "ring species."  More on that below.
  • Ensatina does not need to return to water to breed.  Females can brood their eggs under damp rotted wood or in underground burrows.  The young hatch as fully formed miniatures of the adults.
  • They can regenerate lost limbs making salamanders unique among vertebrates.  
  • They are most active at night during fall, winter and spring when it is rainy, cool and damp.  That's a lot like the people who live here.

Because they must absorb oxygen through their skin, people should avoid handling them.  Oils and chemicals on our hands can disrupt this vital oxygen exchange.

The Wandering Herpetologist provides a good description of a "ring species:"
"A ring species is an organism that exists in a series of connected populations in which the two extreme end populations can no longer interbreed.  This is speciation in action, meaning the ensatina salamander is becoming separate species."
Apparently, Ensatina Salamanders originated in British Columbia.  They gradually spread south through Washington and Oregon and into California.  There, they split and spread down the east and west sides of the dry Central Valley.  At the end of the valley, the two groups rejoined, but could no longer interbreed.  The genetic differences had become too great over time.  This is evolution in action.  This 3 minute video explains it further:

I have learned a lot about salamanders I didn't know before I found this little guy.  I am pleased to share what I learned about this reclusive, unassuming little creature.  The Kukutali Preserve is turning out to be one of the best places around here for spotting wildlife.