Seven Days, Four Salamanders and One Snake

One thing that I am truly grateful for as a naturalist is the terrific opportunity to spend time in the field with other naturalists. More often than not, those naturalists are more gifted than I, allowing me to learn and experience more than if I were walking alone. During my most recent visit to SC, I was able to connect with my friend and fellow naturalist, Josh Castleberry, for a day in the field. For those that know him, you already know Castleberry (or Alpha Josh, as I know him) has an almost supernatural gift for herpetofauna. If there is a cool reptile or amphibian nearby, he can almost sense where it is.

Out riding the trails, we stopped at a small, spring-fed pool of water. I've stopped at this pool to look for turtles and frogs many times this spring and summer, always finding just a few common species leaping or dropping into the water from the edge or the dead wood just above. As Castleberry and I walked along the edge of the pool; however, at least one hundred tiny frogs began leaping around us. Looking down at a collection of frogs freshly done with metamorphosis, we spotted the scurrying of a tiny salamander. Alpha Josh's herpetology mojo was working!

Dwarf Salamander (Eurycea quadridigitata) in the leaf litter at the edge of a small, bring fed pool.  Click to enlarge

Suddenly, with a diminutive salamander before us, two grown men became giddy little children. Castleberry reached into the leaf litter and gently lifted the creature for us to admire. This salamander was extremely small and, as it turns out, it was a Dwarf Salamander (Eurycea quadridigitata). Rarely getting longer than two inches in length and maybe weighing a single gram, Dwarf Salamanders are true to their common name. Even their species name, quadridigitata, hints at the fact that they have only four toes, instead of the usual five toes in the Eurycea genus. Despite them having a range that extends from the Carolinas, throughout the southeast and into the piney woods of East Texas, this was my first personal encounter with the species. I have since learned from speaking to several biologists and naturalists that, though it isn't an uncommon species, they are rarely seen very often. This is likely due to their fossorial lifestyle. Living under a layer of detritus tends to keep a dull-colored, tiny salamander concealed. Having finally seen one, I was one happy naturalist.

A fully grown Dwarf Salamander (Eurycea quadridigitata) in the capable hands of Josh Castleberry. Click to enlarge

A couple of days later, as I prepared to return to Texas, I was still pretty excited about having spent the day with Josh Castleberry and seeing the Dwarf Salamander. Little did I know that Alpha Josh's mojo would fly back with me and give me a herpetology week to remember.

Just six nights later, beneath a birdbath in my backyard, I would get to observe and handle a snake that, until that point, I had only imagined seeing. In the dark of the night, I would see in the beam of my flashlight, a snake of near myth and legend in the American southwest.

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) blending into the dead leaves in my backyard. Notice the black-and-white banded tail, giving it the colloquial name "coontail rattler". Click to enlarge

I often talk about having watched lots of the old black-and white TV westerns growing up. Often, during the course of an episode of one of the many shows that were in that genre of television, a character encounters the meanest creature to ever roam the mountains and prairies. The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) is portrayed as ornery and quick to strike. For a very quick lesson in the scientific name, Crotalus, is from the Greek word 'krotolon", meaning castanet or rattle. That's a pretty accurate genus for a rattlesnake, I do believe. This term is also used in the plant genus Crotalaria, for Showy Crotalaria or Rattlebox. The species name, atrox, means horrible, dreadful and savage. It also can be made into the Latin genitive atrocis, the root word from which we get the word "atrocious". So, it would appear we have a heinous thing with a castanet. After dealing with the one pictured above, I could not disagree with that stereotype more. This snake was well-mannered and beautiful. (Yes, I said beautiful... it truly was a gorgeous snake and I am honored to have handled it).

After admiring it, I got my trusty snake stick and scooped the Western Diamondback, which was a little less than two feet in length, and placed it in a pillowcase. Taking it to an open area next to a large park, I released it and wished it well. As it prepared to slither away, I took a short video of it and texted Castleberry. I knew he'd appreciate something that cool.

The next day, I was to have a day for the ages. As a naturalist, to see one very rare threatened or endangered species is a treat. To see two in a single day is noteworthy. To see three rare species in a single day... well, that's something to be remembered. 

Just under the ripple of crystal clear waters, as almost every bit of water in the hill country is, I saw the ghostly pale image of another creature I don't get to see enough of. Sitting atop a rock just below the surface was the unmistakable silhouette of a Texas Blind Salamander (Eurycea rathbuni)!

Even through the ripples, there is no mistaking the haunting beauty of a Texas Blind Salamander (Eurycea rathbuni). Click to enlarge

Another salamander in the Eurycea genus, the Texas Blind Salamander has evolved to a completely underwater life history and spends the vast majority of its life in water underground. Found most often in caves, this species has no eyes, merely tiny black spots under the skin that are likely used as only photoreceptors. As happy as I was to see a Texas Blind Salamander, there were two other species yet to come.

Both the Barton Springs Salamander (Eurycea sosorum) and the San Marcos Salamander (Eurycea nana) are underwater salamanders found in the springs and rivers that give them their common names. Both are rare, with the Barton Springs Salamander being listed as endangered and the San Marcos Salamander being listed as threatened. Both are beautiful and very difficult to photograph (which is why I don't have good photos to share, yet). And both of them made me smile like an kid at Christmas when I saw them. Castleberry's golden touch with reptiles and amphibians had rubbed off and, in doing so, gave me a week I won't soon forget!

As a postscript, I was walking Gus the other night and saw a Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus) hopping beneath a street light just across the street from us. I'm not sure if it was attempting to catch an insect or merely playfully bounding, but I do know Gus and I watched in utter silence and, at least one of us was amazed by the sight. I suppose I enjoyed it, too. Gus is my little naturalist Great Dane... ok, maybe not so little. The Ringtail is mammal, and not a reptile or amphibian, I know; but still a sight I don't think I could tire of seeing. Especially after such a week as that.

As I've already been asked, I will provide more in-depth species accounts of each in later posts. This post is meant to narrate an amazing seven days in the life of this naturalist. May it also serve to encourage you to always wonder what wonders the next week may bring your way.