This week the rain finally stopped, so we’ve been out in the orchard trying to get on top of the weeds, and plant out some more fruit trees (more on that later). This should have been a post about planting, but much like a magpie, I’m easily distracted in the garden. Mr. Curbstone had a shovel in hand, digging a hole for one of our new fruit trees. As his shovel plunged into some loose soil, a glint of salamander-orange caught my eye.
I was afraid to look. At first I thought this little fellow might have just met his demise at the end of the shovel’s blade, but once we turned him right side up we could see he was fine.
At first glance I thought this was another of our ubiquitous Coast Range Newts. This salamander is very similar in coloration, brown above, and orange below, but noticeably smaller than most of the adult newts we see here. A juvenile perhaps? Something didn’t look quite right though. The skin was too smooth, the body shape seemed different, and the behavior of this salamander seemed a little out of the norm too.
Coast Range Newts, once spied through a camera lens, have a tendency to scrabble under the nearest leaf, rock, or log. They’re very shy. This one though just stood tall, staring me squarely in the eye. It was difficult to tell who was more fascinated with whom!
I apologized to the little chap for such a rude and violent unearthing, and promised that after just one more, oh maybe two, well…if you’re just going stand there and cooperate…a few more photos, he could wander off on his merry way.
The longer we stared at each other though, the more I was convinced this salamander was different. Clearly not a California Slender Salamander, as those look like worms with legs. Not a Coast Range Newt either as his skin just wasn’t bumpy enough, and his body shape was much more slender, more like our recently discovered Arboreal Salamanders. There were no spots on this salamander’s skin though, so that ruled him out.
After downloading the photographs from our brief encounter in the orchard, I went back to the range maps at the California Herps website (after we finished planting the tree, it’s a struggle sometimes, but I try to stay on task), to determine which species of salamander are endemic here.
I confirmed this salamander to be a Yellow-eyed Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica), which now brings our total to four salamander species in residence on the property (that we know of). It shouldn’t really be a surprise I suppose, as we do have the creeks, and more water running off the mountain this time of year than any damp-loving creature could ever hope to have. In the past few weeks, moist skin, webbed toes, or a snorkel have become almost required attire!
The Yellow-eyed Ensatina is the most abundant species of lung-less salamander in this region (and yet the last to be sighted here), that ranges from Healdsburg California, south to Santa Cruz County.
However, we’re located within an inter-grade zone here, where two species of Ensatina have ranges that overlap, the Yellow-eyed Ensatina, and the Monterey Ensatina.
The most readily apparent visual difference between the two species is that the Monterey species has dark eyes, with no yellow coloration in the eye, and as yet we haven’t seen a Monterey Ensatina on the property. Ensatinas, like all of our other salamander species here, thrive in cool moist environments. So how is it we’ve never seen this species previously? Like the Arboreal Salamanders, the Ensatinas are also most active on cool, rainy nights. As I make it a rule never to work nights, we’ve never encountered each other before.
Ensatinas measure between approximately 3-6 inches in total length, and are believed to live for upwards of 15 years. This species resides in moist evergreen and deciduous woodlands, coastal sage-scrub, chaparral and mixed-grassland areas.
Like the Coast Range Newt, the adults are brown dorsally, and orange ventrally, with a yellow reflective patch on the eye that gives this species its name.
This species has a diet similar to the Arboreal Salamander, including crickets (we’ve had no shortage of those in the orchard), centipedes, snails, spiders and termites (also abundant here).
This species breeds, on land, both in the spring and in the fall, and in some milder areas throughout winter. Females lay on average between 9-16 eggs under rotting bark, inside logs, or inside animal burrows.
This is not a migratory species of salamander, unlike the Coast Range Newt, and in fact, Yellow-eyed Ensatinas have quite limited movements. A study by Staub et al., in 1995 demonstrated that the home range of male Ensatinas was a mere 10-41 meters. That would imply if they’re living here at Curbstone Valley, they likely stay here, and don’t wander far. This individual might never even range out of our orchard!
That being true, next time we’re planting trees in the orchard, we’re going to have to be more careful with the shovel! I can’t help it, isn’t that the most adorable salamander face you’ve ever seen?
 Staub, N.L., C.W. Brown and D.B. Wake. 1995. Patterns of growth and movements in a population of Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis (Caudata: Plethodontidae) in the Sierra Nevada, California. Journal of Herpetology 29:593–599