Searching for Stormi

Call me weird (you wouldn’t be the first), but I absolutely love salamanders. These slippery amphibians come in astoundingly pretty patterns, have a perpetual smile on their face, and, most of all, are so much fun to search for. Many salamander species are restricted to specific habitat types in very out-of-the-way places that the average person just does not see. Recently, when my natural restlessness came to a head, I decided that I needed an excuse to visit just such a place. My destination would be the Siskiyou Mountains in the Applegate Valley, about an hour and a half west of Ashland. This remote region is the home of a special salamander found nowhere else on Earth. This is Plethodon stormi, otherwise known as the Siskiyou Mountains Salamander.

The Siskiyou Mountains Salamander Peter and Jason found.
The Siskiyou Mountains Salamander Peter and Jason found.

Before we get to the meat of this post, I should probably tell you a little bit about this creature. Since this salamander belongs to the genus Plethodon, we know that it does something very unusual: it breathes through its skin. This trait requires salamanders in this group to stay constantly moist. For the Siskiyou Mountains Salamander, moisture is found in deep, wet crevices between large groups of rocks that have collected on hillsides, otherwise known as talus slopes. It is on these talus slopes that the first specimens of this species were collected in 1965 and it is on these slopes where I hoped to come across this mysterious salamander forty-nine years later.

Typically, I like to be on my own for salamander trips. This day was different. There was something in the air, besides the warm mist, that was telling me it would be a trip to remember. I texted Jason Wilson, a fellow student in the program, and he was down to go. A couple hours later, we were in the Applegate. We rounded the first bend along the lake that the valley stems from and were struck by the eyes that met us. Perched in a dead tree not twenty feet in front of the car was a full-grown Bald Eagle, looking down at us as if to say, “Keep driving..nothing to see here.” The day was going to be a good one.

The realm of the Siskiyou Mountain Salamander is difficult to determine. I knew that talus slopes were their preferred habitat, but Jason and I quickly realized that not all talus was the same. Some slopes were exposed and dry. Others were literally dripping with water. We flipped rocks in every type of talus slope we could find, hoping for a Goldilocks moment. As I looked back on Jason stumbling and cursing under his breath during the descent of a particularly perilous slope, I realized that the next talus slope better be just right.

I don’t remember what made us decide this but, a few minutes of driving after the sketchy descent, we agreed that the slope coming up on our right was perfect. The habitat looked right but, honestly, we were just itching to get out of the car. To our south was a valley of endless forest, with mountain peaks reaching up into the omnipresent high fog. The air smelled so fresh, and the wind seemed to blow the scents from the deepest reaches of the forest right into our noses. The setting was ideal and I wandered over to the best looking rocks and began to turn them over carefully. Nothing…nothing…nothing…nothing. Four rocks into the best-looking habitat, and still no salamanders.

The habitat that was "just right."
The habitat that was “just right.”

I bent down to an especially small, insignificant looking rock. Expecting nothing, I turned it over faster than I had for the last few rocks. And, like a flash of unexpected lightning, there it was: a Siskiyou Mountain Salamander. I hooted and hollered like a madman! This was my most thrilling salamander find in months! I picked up the salamander carefully, being sure to immediately pour water on my hand so that the salamander would not get dry. I put its rock home back exactly as I found it, and set the smiling creature down on top of the rock.

By this point, Jason had walked over with a grin on his face. Here was one of the most endangered and beautiful amphibians in Oregon, and he knew we were fortunate to have seen one. I picked up the salamander and put it in Jason’s hand, in the hopes that he would feel the same sense of magnetism I felt towards salamanders, if even for a few seconds. I think he did.

EE grad student Jason Wilson holding the salamander
EE grad student Jason Wilson holding the salamander

The salamander was over the attention by this point, so I gently placed it back under its rock. As it wriggled away, my smile could not have been larger. The day had been a success and all the poring over scientific journals, topographic maps, and physical effort had paid off. I started up the car, turned to Jason, and stated matter-of-factly, “Well, that was amazing. Now for the next species.”

This is the abridged version of an article that Peter wrote for Insight to Ashland. To see the full version of this story, not to mention some of Peter’s other writings and more about the Ashland area, check out : http://www.insighttoashland.com/blog/

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