Archive for February, 2011

It’s not every day that I see a spotted salamander. As a matter of fact, I spent a lot of time as a kid in the woods around here turning rocks over, poking sticks into holes, and generally looking everywhere I could for things that creeped and crawled. Plenty of red efts, plenty of newts, toads, and snakes. But never a spotted salamander like this one. And maybe for good reason. A quick google of Ambystoma maculatum tells me that the adults spend most of their time nearly underground, in moist, hidden places, eating earthworms and other such things. Only on warm, rainy nights do they venture above ground to go to a mating pond.

A careful study of the above picture though, might leave you wondering just what is going on here. Is that snow??!! Yep, that’s snow all right. This is a photo I took of a spotted salamander as he sauntered out on a fine day in late December, with plenty of snow on the ground. It was a sunny day, but not particularly warm, when I snowshoed up to a small, dark, moving mass in the snow. Stuck in a footprint, as a matter of fact.

There he was, on a groomed cross-country ski trail, stuck in a footprint. I was bemused, to say the least.

What in the world was a salamander doing out in December? I really have no idea. But I do know that due to my inquisitive nature and tireless tracking abilities, I could reconstruct part of the story. For on the uphill side of the ski trail, I picked up the track of the salamander.

How many people can say that they have followed the tracks of a salamander in the snow? Probably not too many. I found myself chuckling at the strangeness of it all while I carefully back tracked the footprints and tail drag of a spotted salamander in December snow. How far had he gone? How long had he been walking? Luckily, after only twenty yards or so, I had my answer. My quarry’s trail led back to a hemlock sapling that was just poking its head up through the snow. On the underside of the tiny trunk was a little tunnel where the tension of the bent twig had probably pushed against the snowpack just enough to create a little salamander highway. And that where the tracks came out of.

Intrigued by the strangeness of it all, I followed the tracks back down to the live specimen, still wriggling in the ski trail. He’d freed himself from the footprint and was now, very slowly, pushing himself forward one push of a leg at a time. The sun was soon to go down, he must have been getting colder and slower. I watched for a minute and he moved barely a foot.

These are the sort of times that can be a sort of test. I am a trained wildlife biologist, versed in the ways of data and statistics and study design. All of which train you to leave things be. To let things play out in a natural way without interference, for the good of impartial observing. And then there is also the school that believes that things happen for a reason, and that you should let nature take its course. That there is a sort of arrogance in thinking that we can change things for the better by sticking our nose into situations like this. I am partial to both of these schools, I will not lie.

But there is this, too. A kinship. I watched the salamander struggling, inch by inch, across the trail. It was now below freezing –  a dangerous time for an ectothermic being. The skies were clear, boding for a hard frost by morning. He was nowhere near shelter. Downhill, and in the direction he was traveling, were a string of beaver ponds that were probably his destination… a winter spent in a sheltering mudbath, I imagine. But I couldn’t imagine him making it that far before the frost crystals began rupturing living cells and putting a solitary end to his efforts.

I considered carrying him down to the pond. Too much? I am no reader of amphibian minds… maybe that wasn’t his destination at all. Besides, what about survival of the fittest and all that? Maybe this creature was not destined to breed again. Who was I to interfere? A leg reached out, the body serpentined and found meager purchase against the grains of snow. Well, I could at least get him off the trail. He stood some chance of being run over by a groomer during the night. My human interference might prevent human interference of another kind.

And so I picked him up and moved him off the trail, to the downhill side. And I hope he didn’t mind that I dug out the slightest of a hollow at the base of a tree for him, and finished by covering him with a handful of snow. Enough insulation, I thought, to help him survive the coming frost. I couldn’t help it.

Did he make it to the pond? Did he survive the night? I don’t know, but I hope so.

What I do know is that some day, years from now, I hope to be out in the winter with a friend, and come across a strange track in the snow. Not a beetle, not a mouse, but something different. I look forward to looking at it, smiling, and saying with confidence, “why, that’s a salamander track,” and then telling this story again.

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