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.
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 attenuatus) that had a near death experience in our chicken coop. The Yellow-eyed Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica) that almost met its doom at the end of a shovel while planting apple trees in the orchard.
The Coast Range Newts (Taricha torosa torosa) that 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 lugubris) that reside among the cracks and crevices in the retaining walls, and can regularly been seen here after sundown.
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.
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.
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.
This species has a laterally compressed, somewhat sword-shaped, tail that is well adapted for swimming.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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!
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.