Creature Feature December 2022: California Slender Salamander

A rare visitor at Richardson Bay captured the hearts of everyone lucky enough to catch a glimpse.

"Ew, are those worms?" a Youth Leader inquired as we watched dozens of wriggling bodies submerge themselves into the gravely soil. One of several massive tarps had been dragged out from underneath our Native Plant Nursery tables so we could cover the garden beds and deter weeds from outcompeting native grasses and plants. We were used to seeing creatures flee when their semi-permanent homes got uprooted, but there was something distinct about this encounter. It seemed implausible that we hadn't seen any worms prior despite the tarp underbelly being a perfect hiding place for them, and the creatures we observed were burrowing through the rocks with astounding ease for having no bones. 

One of the other Youth Leaders crouched down and stuck their head under the table impetuously. At first, silence, and then: "SALAMANDERS!"

Indeed, our rather worm-bodied friends were not worms at all, but amphibians that had never been seen at Richardson Bay by Audubon staff before. A group of California Slender Salamanders (Batrachoseps attenuatus) had made a dwelling underneath our garden tarps, and they were thriving. 

These tiny amphibians measure only 7-13 centimeters in length and have miniscule, four-toed limbs. With 18-24 ribs, these salamanders are conspicuously slinky and are often mistaken for worms (guilty as charged). Like other amphibians, California Slender Salamanders breathe through their skin, and the quality of the water they rely on to keep them moist makes them an important indicator species for a given locale — when amphibians are present, the ecosystem is functioning well. 

California Slender Salamanders are not uncommon within their range, but their distribution is limited to coastal mountain regions and specific parts of the Sierra Nevada foothills, the northmost Central Valley, and southern Oregon. They prefer woodland habitats with plenty of leaf litter and freshwater streams to keep them healthy, so their appearance at Richardson Bay, underneath a table with little moisture and no nearby riparian habitat, was particularly striking. 

Several more Youth Leaders gathered to try to catch a glimpse of the salamanders, and several joined the ringleader under the table to scout for more. As most of us admired two lone salamanders clinging to the unearthed tarp, we heard the Youth Leaders on the ground cry out even more emphatically than before: "EGGS!"  

A clutch of about 25 individual eggs was nestled gently between several supporting rocks, each one appearing more like a miniature, translucent crystal ball than an egg. California Slender Salamanders lay their eggs in the winter, earlier than other salamanders, and 5-10 different females lay eggs at a single oviposition site. We were staring at two things no one in recent memory has seen at Richardson Bay before: a flourishing populous of an improbable visitor, and the promise of more to come. 

Eggs typically hatch between March and April, and if all goes well, these salamanders will be around to inspire next year's Youth Leaders too. In any case, seeing these compelling amphibians on the property suggests that restoration projects are having impacts far beyond what we notice on a daily basis, slowly restoring the native ecology and extending beyond our focal point of birds. Indeed, when birds thrive, we all do — even our smallest, most worm-shaped neighbors.

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