California Giant Salamander

Posted by on Jul 10, 2014 in Farm Blog, Flora and Fauna, Native Wildlife | 16 comments

This morning was perhaps as near to perfect ‘salamander weather’ as one could hope to find mid-summer here along the coast. The coastal marine layer was so thick early this morning, there was actually some measurable precipitation. Not really enough to call it rain, per se, but the 0.03″ that misted across our woodlands this morning was enough to make everything outside damp, and give the air a fresher, more clean, aroma than it’s had in weeks.

As my neighbor was attempting to leave for work early this morning in the drizzle, he stopped and called our attention to this rather large creature laying squarely in the middle of our driveway.

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

This formidable fellow is a California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus), and this is the first time in eight years that I’ve been able to catch one on camera in daylight!

It’s no great secret that the farm is home to a variety of salamander species. I’ve posted previously about the California Slender Salamander  (Batrachoseps attenuatusthat had a near death experience in our chicken coop. The Yellow-eyed Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthopticathat almost met its doom at the end of a shovel while planting apple trees in the orchard. The Coast Range Newts (Taricha torosa torosathat scurry all over the farm after the fall rains, and the individual we found earlier this year that was bilaterally anophthalmic. Not to mention the Arboreal Salamanders (Aneides lugubristhat reside among the cracks and crevices in the retaining walls, and can regularly been seen here after sundown.

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

The sighting of a California Giant Salamander here is very rare, though. They’re certainly not sighted with the same frequency as our Coast Range Newts or Ensatinas.

This unique species is not only endemic to California, but it has a very limited habitat range, found from southern Santa Cruz county, north through Sonoma county into southern Mendocino county. Dicamptodon ensatus, however, has not been found in the East Bay, and as such, the populations in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties are geographically isolated from the northern populations.

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

Dicamptodon ensatus is typically nocturnal, which may explain why this is only the second time one has been sighted on the farm since we’ve been here. However, they are occasionally active during the day in damp weather, like this robust individual was this morning.

Adults measure approximately 12 inches in length, and as such, this is one of the largest North American terrestrial salamander species. This adult actually appeared to be a little over a foot in total length.

Just for scale, this California Giant Salamander is next to a US Quarter, which is approximately 1 inch in diameter

Just for scale, this California Giant Salamander is next to a US Quarter, which is approximately 1 inch in diameter

Except for its size and coloration, this species is a rather typical looking salamander, replete with the requisite four toes on its front feet, and five toes on the hind feet.

With five toes, this is a hind foot of the California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

With five toes, this is a hind foot of the California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

This species has a laterally compressed, somewhat sword-shaped, tail that is well adapted for swimming.

The tail of the California Giant Salamander is compressed side-to-side

The tail of the California Giant Salamander is compressed side-to-side

The diet of adults of this species is known to include our ubiquitous Banana Slugs, small rodents (I wonder if they eat voles?), lizards, no doubt including our Coast Range Fence Lizards, various invertebrates, and amphibians, like our Sierran Treefrogs.

California Giant Salamanders have been photographed consuming Banana Slugs (Ariolimax dolichophallus)

California Giant Salamanders have been photographed consuming Banana Slugs (Ariolimax dolichophallus)

As with most salamander species, they are typically found close to permanent bodies of fresh water. There are two creeks that flank the edge of the farm that historically have flowed year-around, however, neither has had very much freely flowing water during the drought over the last few years.

This is one of the creeks that flanks the farm, and during a normal rainy season is  excellent salamander habitat

This is one of the creeks that flanks the farm, and during a normal rainy season is excellent salamander habitat

California Giant Salamanders typically time breeding to coincide with our seasonal spring and fall rains, and females lay their eggs underwater. Larvae reportedly hatch in approximately 5 months. With both the lack of rainfall, and the unpredictable timing of our storms the past few years, one does have to wonder how much that has impacted the variety of insect and amphibian life that is dependent on fresh water sources for reproduction.

We hope when the fall rains return that the creeks will flow again

We hope when the fall rains return that the creeks will flow again

Aquatic larvae mature and transform into terrestrial adults around 18 months of age, however, some neotenic adults may retain their gills, and continue to reside in an aquatic environment.

Despite its considerable size, the color and reticulate pattern of this species does enable it to blend in well with its surroundings. So that our neighbor could finally make his way to work this morning, this salamander was guided off our driveway and into the woodland brush at the edge of the road.

Safely escorted off the driveway

Safely escorted off the driveway

I was impressed at how fast these large salamanders can move when encouraged to, and it quickly almost slithered across the drive, and settled off the side of the road among a thicket of weeds and grasses.

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

The California Giant Salamander is also known to vocalize, producing a chirping, or barking noise, especially when threatened. This individual was silent though, so we didn’t get to hear any of the vocalizations this time.

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)

To date this has proven to be the most elusive salamander species on the farm, so that made it that much more exciting to spend some time up close and personal with this one this morning. I just hope it isn’t another eight years before I encounter the next one!

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This individual was guided off the driveway to a safer location in the surrounding woodland a few feet from where it was found. We leave all wild animal species at Curbstone Valley in their natural environments, and are careful not to damage sensitive habitat and hiding places. Note that it is illegal to collect and possess native reptile or amphibian species in California without the required licenses and/or permits.
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16 Comments

  1. How fun, and you got some great shots! I remember when my son and his friends would find salamanders and bring them home. They were that large or larger, but they weren’t as pretty as yours. That color is beautiful! Thanks for sharing!
    Beth @ PlantPostings´s last post…Tree Following: The Shady Shagbarks

    • Sometimes I feel like a kid when I find things like this on the farm. There probably aren’t many salamanders that are much larger than this, as the California Giant is one of the largest North American species! I wish I’d had a ruler with me, as the quarter doesn’t really do the scale justice!

  2. Such a treat to discover a new creature lurking under bark and leaves, now front and center on my laptop. I love your magical discoveries and even more that you share them with us. Here’s to some summer rain for my friends in California!
    Tom | Tall Clover Farm´s last post…5 Things I Learned This Week: Entry 1

    • After eight years, you’d think nothing would surprise me any more. That said, some of the nocturnal creatures certainly go un-noticed here. Last time I was running around here in the dark at 1 AM I bumped into a Mountain Lion, so I don’t make a habit of of photographing nocturnal animals…unless they happen to be out during daylight 😉

  3. It’s good to know that these salamanders are still surviving (and, one can hope, thriving); the long drought has to be very stressful for them.
    Jean at Jean’s Garden´s last post…Star Turn

    • I really do wonder just how much of an impact this extended drought cycle will have on species like this. This particular species is reported to survive in captivity for upwards of 16 years, so perhaps a 3 year drought period won’t be of any great significance to most individuals. Overall though, just seeing how many insect and amphibian species depend on fresh flowing water here in the spring, there must be some impact. Our creeks here were bone dry by May, and the ‘old-timers’ that have lived here for decades will tell you that until relatively recently, these creeks flowed year-around. Definitely food for thought…

  4. Clare what a treat for you and us to see this elusive critter…we don’t see the one lizard species of NY…that would be great. I used to see small salamanders in our old shade gardens…yours is a beauty
    [email protected] last post…Dear Friend and Gardener: The Veg Garden Finally Grows

    • I agree, this little guy was stunning! I love the pattern on this salamander, and am honestly quite in awe at his size! I do wonder, sometimes, what the farm truly looks like at night. A number of our more interesting species here are nocturnal. Sometimes I wish I had a live streaming view of the farm at night. I expect I’d be surprised at who and what is running around here at night!

  5. Wow, that’s an impressively big salamander! How exciting to find one! I’ve found a few little salamanders here under rocks in my garden – I really should look up what type they are 🙂
    Indie´s last post…The Local Characters

    • Part of me honestly feels that half of gardening is understanding who else is frequenting your gardens. It may be obvious that herbs that bloom attract birds or bees, but that same cover from the plants encourages a host of other species as well, including this guy. Regardless as to our intent as gardeners, we’re often creating habitat without realizing it! Our retaining wall for example was a HUGE hit with the local lizard population. The capstones are normally covered in lizard in poop…but if you peek underneath…they’re populated with lizards!

  6. My word he’s big! and pretty too. Anything that’s willing to eat a banana slug is a friend in my books. Those things are just disgusting.
    Marguerite´s last post…Summer is Upon Us

  7. Banana slugs are a bit weird, but after I learned just how vital they are to the entire Redwood forest ecosystem, I gave them a break 🙂

    Truth is, as the slug traps have proven, they’re not nearly as damaging to our seedlings as the average garden variety brown slugs. I’ve never caught a banana slug in a slug trap!

    Also, where else in the world can you go, and brag that you have bright banana-yellow slugs running amok! I have discovered over the years that they have a voracious appetite (when it rains…which lately is rare) for Russula sp. mushrooms. It’s amazing to see these fungi mid-winter with the characteristic Banana Slug gnaw-marks around the edges of the caps! http://curbstonevalley.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/bananaslugmush.jpg

  8. Clare, this is the second time today I have come across a giant salamander featured by another blogger. Before today, I was only familiar with much smaller ones. How thrilling it must have been to see that creature! I was also fascinated by your banana slugs. The other giant salamander, looking somewhat similar to yours and just as large, is called a Hellbender, in Tennessee, and there is concern that its population is decreasing due to polluted waterways.
    debsgarden´s last post…This Plant Had to Go

    • I was truly in awe. We have quite a few salamander species here, but nothing else on this scale. My neighbor knew as soon as he saw it what it was, and stopped his truck about 6 feet short of where this guy was. I was surprised to see it as our creeks here have been dry for many more months than wet over the last three years, due to the drought, and I’ve wondered just how well species like this are coping. This magnitude of drought is quite rare, at least over the last century, in this location. He looked healthy though, so clearly he’s coping. Crossing my fingers that there will be some more substantial (although not too much at once) rainfall this winter!

  9. What an amazingly beautiful creature!

    My co-workers found a massive salamander under a flowerpot in downtown Berkeley. He was a dark brown and had to be at least six inches long. They assured me that they weren’t going to harm him, and I lamented my lack of a camera. Of salamanders!
    Lisa and Robb´s last post…The Caterpillar Plantation

    • Isn’t it stunning? I love the markings on this species! I was lamenting my own lack of a camera the last time one of this species was sighted here. In this age of social media, if you don’t have photographic proof, it doesn’t exist! 😛