Monday, January 27, 2014

Do Endangered Species Stop Progress? A Case Like You've Never Heard. Part I

Please welcome Living Alongside Wildlife's newest contributor, Sean Graham. Sean is kicking things off with an epic five part story about his experience learning first-hand how the Endangered Species Act really works. A new post will appear each day this week, with the story concluding on Friday.

Part I: Fishing in the Alabama Red Hills

    I lanced a cricket with the hook, and cast the line. For this kind of fishing I was using a barbless hook, and I didn’t need a rod or reel. I instead simply played out the cricket and waited, holding the line in my hands. After a brief delay, there was a tug on the line and I pulled it out. There was no resistance, but I saw the hook now held only a little bug goo and the cricket’s leg. I swore, put another cricket on the line, and played him out. The cricket needed no invitation to go where I needed him to go; after being in the little cricket carrier with all the other crickets he was happy to oblige and crawl into a nice dark hole.

    I was on my hands and knees just after dark in a forest, crouched over a hole the diameter of a quarter, earnestly watching the line disappear, one, two, three inches into the ground. My headlamp beam illuminated the hole and a small halo of leaf litter. I probably had my tongue sticking out of my mouth in concentration. I would have made quite a sight if some backwoods hunter had come along just then and stumbled upon me. Almost anywhere you go in the South folks will ask you if you are fishing or what you’re fishing for if you’re anywhere near water. But here I was miles from the nearest fishing hole with a line going underground. The scene that followed would probably have startled the backwoodsman, and then my subsequent reaction would have probably made him quickly leave the scene, certain that I was insane, a lunatic escaped from some nearby asylum.

    This time there was a brief tug, and I yanked the line, and
 the line yanked back. I pulled with a gentle tug—much too gentle—and then I was fighting. I couldn’t believe how hard this thing was tugging on the line, and I started to pull, putting enough tension on the line that I probably could have pulled a cat off the ground by its tail. I pulled hard, actually standing up as I pulled, and suddenly a purple face appeared from the hole, its mouth snapping open. My eyes bulged at the sight of this thing, and I continued to pull. As the creature’s head and neck cleared the hole, the resistance suddenly stopped, and the beast’s trunk and abdomen started unfurling from the hole. I gasped, and for some reason I said, “Oh no!” as the critter continued clearing the hole, inch by inch, its pink-purple flanks wriggling. “Oh no!” I said again, smiling, giggling, my eyes getting bigger, not believing.

    It was like taking a bite of a cheese pizza and pulling the bite away from the slice, the cheese stretching unbelievably, and to admire the excellence of the pizza, handing the slice across the table to your friend. Imagine your eyes, and your surprise, and the surprise of your friend, as the cheese endlessly plays out. That was my surprise the day I fished out my first Red Hills Salamander (Phaeognathus hubrichti). 

    The Red Hills Salamander is one of the most incredible vertebrates in North America. Its discovery is the stuff of mythic heroes and titans, the kind of story biologists keep handy and at the ready to inspire and to remind students or lay folks about how little we really know about the natural world. The first Red Hills Salamander was discovered in the late 1950s by Leslie Hubricht, snail biologist who was collecting in south Alabama. He rolled over a log—a good place to find lots of creatures that like moisture, including snails and salamanders—and found a ridiculous, humungous, elongate, purplish salamander. It was almost a foot long in total length, yet its legs were pathetically small, like some kind of world record wiener dog. He didn’t need to be a herpetologist or a salamander expert to recognize that it was unique. 



Leslie Hubricht,
photo by A. Solem
    Hubricht collected it, and passed it along to a salamander expert, a guy named Richard Highton. Highton certainly recognized its uniqueness, and described it as a new species based on this single specimen. The salamander was so unique that he needed to create an entire new genus to accommodate it. Thus, it was described Phaeognathus hubrichti, named after its discoverer, in 1961. 

    This discovery was something of a big thing, especially in the field of herpetology, where no entirely new genus of vertebrates had been discovered in quite some time in North America, especially a new genus that happened to be among the biggest in its whole family. Although there is one bigger lungless salamander in Mexico, Phaeognathus is the largest member of its family in the United States. The lungless salamanders, family Plethodontidae, are the most species-numerous salamander family on the planet, and are represented in North, Central, and South America by hundreds of species. 



A Slimy Salamander, P. glutinosis
    The Plethodontidae family includes the familiar woodland salamanders of the eastern deciduous forests—like Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon glutinosus), Redback Salamanders (P. cinereus), and Two-lined Salamanders (Eurycea cirrigera)—which are usually quite small and are unique among terrestrial vertebrates by entirely lacking lungs. That means all respiration takes place across the skin. This will no doubt seem surprising to you, a lung-breather, although perhaps once it is revealed that a substantial proportion of gas exchange also occurs across your skin, you may not think it’s too strange at all. This was the basis for the sinister murders in the movie Goldfinger—a villain who suffocates women by gilding their skin—which were of course entirely fictitious. But carbon dioxide escaping from your skin is how mosquitoes find you, so there you have it: a completely relevant point. Most vertebrates, humans included, utilize other modes of gas exchange other than lung respiration, and it’s just that these salamanders have completely done away with lungs and instead depend entirely on cutaneous respiration.

    And so it was surprising that one of the largest lungless salamanders was awaiting discovery for decades in south Alabama and only came to light in 1961. This became more understandable when universities mounted expeditions to locate specimens for their museums. Years went by, and graduate students and professors from around the country returned to their colleges empty handed. Eventually folks figured out that the reason for this was that the salamander is mostly nocturnal, which most salamanders tend to be, and they are also dedicated burrowers. In fact, one of the most bizarre twists of fate in the history of herpetology is that this salamander was discovered the way it was—remember, the first specimen was found under a log. You can probably count the total number of specimens ever found out of their burrows on one hand, which means that the chances of Hubricht ever finding one that way was exceedingly small. Had he not been so remarkably lucky, the salamander could easily still be hiding from science in its burrows to this day.

    The discovery of additional Red Hills Salamander specimens is outlined excellently in Whit Gibbon’s (no relation to Euell) entertaining, herpetological classic Their Blood Runs Cold. For more information, you should read that account, but to make a long story short it was some time before anyone figured out that you had to go out at night and look for them at the entrance of their burrows. There they sit, their eyes googly, their purple faces conveying monumental stupidity, like an amphibian version of Barney the dinosaur. Oft times, they retract quickly back into their burrows the moment your flashlight beam illuminates them, and you can’t quite decide whether they were there or not. The first capture method refined in the early days was to find a face in a burrow and quickly use a spade to cut off the salamander’s rear escape, which did a substantial amount of damage to the hillsides where they live. Collectors also managed to cut off more of the salamander than their rear escape by attempting this.



An American Beech on a slope forest in the Red Hills
    Eventually researchers determined the global geographic distribution of the Red Hills Salamander using a combination of destructive collecting and non-destructive burrow surveys. The range is quite small. The common name for the salamander refers to a distinctive geographic subregion in south Alabama: the Red Hills. This is an area of sharp relief and eroded hills (none of which, it turns out, are even remotely red), which for some time had been recognized by the often surprising botanical and zoological characters found there. Many species usually found much further to the north have southern enclaves in the Red Hills, whose north-facing slopes contain beech and magnolias and resemble the cool forests of northern Alabama more than they do the open pine forests on the ridges above them in south Alabama. It turned out that the salamanders are restricted to these cool, steep ravines, and are in fact not found east of the Conecuh River nor west of the Alabama River. The entire range of the species is circumscribed within the boundary of two geological units: the Hatchetigbee and Tallahatta formations. These formed during times of high sea level 50 million years ago during the Eocene. Fossils of oysters and the jagged teeth of primitive and murderous whales erode from the same hillsides where Red Hills Salamanders monitor their burrow entrances. Thorough surveys determined that these bizarre salamanders could be found in only five counties in south Alabama.

    A stunning discovery was made in the late 1990s. A population of Red Hills Salamanders was discovered far outside of this narrow belt, extending the known range of the salamander some ten whole kilometers to the north. A sixth county, directly adjacent to the county in which it was first discovered, also contained the salamander. Wow.

    After this discovery I thought that perhaps the range of this species was based upon dogma alone, and I started thinking that people should start looking for these salamanders elsewhere. After all, there exists in the Coastal Plain of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia other areas of rich soils and northern plants, and the Red Hills and their geological formations continue into those states far outside of Alabama. In one pocket of Georgia there appeared to be a particularly promising area, referred to as the “Chattahoochee Ravines” by Charles Wharton in his classic ecology book The Natural Environments of Georgia. His account of this region includes a photograph of a steep, slick slope cloaked with filmy angel hair ferns, with a coed in the foreground for scale. 



The author rapelling down a slope fishing for
Phaeognathus. Note the flags that mark each burrow.
    He lists the strange plant species that grow there—many unusual for the area or for the whole state—and mentions, tantalizingly, as if intended for a hunter of Phaeognathus: “these areas are geologically unique and their flora and fauna, when properly known, may prove to be very interesting to science.” With this deafening call-to-arms in mind, I found myself scouring wet cliff walls and slopes in southwest Georgia, looking for salamander burrows.


Check back tomorrow for Part II.

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