Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Part III of Natural Springs, Brownback Salamanders, and the Good Folks of St. Clair County

By Sean Graham

Make sure to start at Part I.

Part III: "Let's Find aquatica"

    In 2006 I worked at Zoo Atlanta and met Beth Timpe, an incredibly smart and organized woman with curly, fire orange hair. When we both left for grad school we decided to tackle the Brownback Salamander problem. She was going to work with Ron Bonett, a salamander genetics guru. I would be at Auburn, an hour away from most known Brownback Salamander collection sites. After conferring with Ron, he decided it was a good idea. Now we just had to find them.


    You’ve seen the fake adventurers on Discovery Channel travelling to some cave in India to locate a famed and entirely mythical creature. You’ve heard of the great naturalists of the 19th century exploring a continent for the first time, and you can probably imagine their determination and delight in discovering new species. But a nugget of this exhilaration can be experienced in far more prosaic circumstances, and to be sure, the lead up to discovery is usually far more fulfilling than the discovery itself. The real thrill is the collection trip; scouring ancient hills hiding unseen treasures, requiring no small amount of experience, skill, and of course providential luck. 

The most recent crew to Sander's Spring, Jenn Deitloff
Mike Alcorn, Megan Loraas, and the author.
    Driving one hour north to Birmingham carried just as much allure as if we’d packed up and left for Borneo. The fruits of our search would be no less novel. It was all the more incredible that we were driving along interstates populated by oblivious truckers, tax accountants, and fast food fry guys with no concept of the deepness of mystery casting reflections on their windows. We would arrive at intersections and interpret our bearings sternly. Hitting one site then speeding on to the next one. We were on a mission.

    It was early April 2007 when we arrived in the gravel parking lot of an old, yet neat, one-room white Baptist church, one of thousands that can be found all over the South, one hundred times more common than bookstores. We had intended to ask the pastor for permission to look around the property, but it was a Saturday and nobody was around. So we helped ourselves, scanning the tree line and grounds for signs of watercress. Jones’ thesis mentioned the best way to find the salamanders was to look for “watercress choked” springs and look through the dense growth. After a thorough search at Ebenezer Church we had only a possible sighting of a Brownback Salamander and no specimens. Perhaps this was going to be harder than we thought. 

    Our next stop was Glenn Spring, the type locality. It was absolutely crucial that we find salamanders there, but after our first experience we were careful not to get our hopes up. I didn’t really have much hope for finding them, because Rose mentioned they had been eliminated, Tom Jones only found larvae there, and nobody else had collected adult specimens there since the sixties. We arrived in Bessemer early in the afternoon and cruised through the sleepy, old neighborhoods. There were fences everywhere and the properties did not look inviting. Before turning around we saw a small sign indicating the boundary of what can probably be considered the most unlikely location for a National Wildlife Refuge. 

    At 25 acres, Watercress Darter National Wildlife Refuge is among the smallest such property in the country. It was established in 1980 to protect a tiny remnant of the habitat for a tiny fish, the Watercress Darter (Etheostoma nuchale) that is found only in the Birmingham Valley. Darters are minute, colorful, and full of personality. They park themselves on the bottom of clear streams and dart about snapping up small invertebrates. Males have fins as gaudily attractive as any bird’s plumage, and rival any popular tropical aquarium fish in beauty. They contribute some 180 species to eastern North America’s fish fauna, and therefore play a substantial role in making this region the most species rich temperate freshwater fish fauna in the world. The Watercress Darter was named for its tendency to occupy springs with abundant watercress, and is federally endangered because it only occupies a couple of the springs in the heavily industrial Birmingham region. It may have once been slightly more common, but many of the springs were long since capped for municipal use. Tom Jones pointed out that the distribution of rare, spring-loving darters overlapped rather well with that of the Brownback Salamander, which supported the idea that whatever factors led to the evolution of unique fish could certainly have influenced the salamanders as well. It would prove to be an incredible insight. 

    After what might have been the quickest collection period of my career, we were in and out of the refuge in fifteen minutes with several adult specimens of Brownback Salamanders. Apparently the unscrupulous collectors Rose had mentioned did not succeed in wiping them out. And like Rose before us, we were quickly convinced after seeing the brown, big headed males that we were dealing with a real species. We took small pieces of their tails for DNA—which regenerate readily—and released them. 

    After that trip we had a pretty good feel for how to find the salamanders. Finding the springs themselves was often the hardest part. We stopped in at a small spring that was listed in the museum catalog as “Taylor’s Farm.” A mean old man—leathery, with a hooked beak and scowling eyes—came out of a dilapidated shed and immediately began swearing nonsensically as we tried to explain what we were doing there. Before old man Taylor could discourage us, Wayne Cole strode across his front yard wearing a big friendly grin, followed by a substantial pack of small black and white mutts. The yapping of the dogs drowned out most of the brief but colorful exchange between Wayne and old man Taylor, the latter of whom continued muttering unintelligible but clearly profane remarks. He then waved his hands around angrily and went back inside. After a short introduction and shaking Wayne’s big hands we were given permission to check out the spring. Wayne Cole is a boisterous man, with a head like a watermelon. He wears overalls and rubber boots, and has a round, vacant face. But he’s no dummy. He’s a retired engineer for a local business, and he was thoroughly interested in what we were doing. He jotted down my number, promising he’d contact me with any number of questions about wildlife. He told us not to worry about old man Taylor, because he was crazy, and he was Wayne’s cousin. 

A very yellow Brownback Salamander from Taylor's Farm.
    We crossed a goat yard, dancing around turds and mud holes, and were soon peeling back thin layers of moss and flipping rocks from the margin of a crystal clear spring edged by watercress. I waded into the basin to get to some of the rocks. We had our quarry within minutes: some were big headed males, others gravid females, but they were all brightly colored and blonde—not the color typical for Brownback Salamanders. After the excitement of catching the salamanders I looked through the clear water of the ziplock bag holding their wriggling forms. I admired how, despite their color, they were still shaped very differently from Two-lined Salamanders. I allowed my eyes to focus on something in the background through the lens of the bag, and noticed a white PVC pipe trailing away from the spring, tracing a patch across the goat pasture up to Taylor’s shack. I was standing up to my crotch in his water supply. 

    We found Sander’s Spring the next year. By then I had refined my approach to asking permission for access to property. First and foremost, I never went up to knock on the door unless I had a woman with me. A pair of guys approaching the door was cause for immediate panic: two methed-out serial killers were coming. But if a girl knocks on the door it’s just a couple of college kids. My companion for many of these trips was the indefatigable Shannon Hoss. Shannon and I arrived at the property in late March—a bright, clear day after a cold front, when the valley had begun warming and light purple clouds sailed across a blue sky. The front yard was a well-manicured rose garden and had one of those store-bought ponds with freshwater plants. We knocked on the front door of the closest white house and got no response. So we drove past it down to a rectangular forest green house down the hill. After a brief wait a man of about forty came to the door—serious, with dark eyebrows and cropped dark hair. Handsome if slightly overweight. He looked like the kind of guy you’d choose to play a guy from Alabama in a movie about guys from Alabama. He didn’t look happy to see us. 

    “Hello sir, we’re biologists from Auburn University, and we would like to search your spring for salamanders.” 

    “Auburn, huh?” I glanced up to the right and noticed that the flag flying from his white front porch, right next to the ubiquitous front swing, was not the stars and stripes. Instead the flag was a blood red, cursive “A” on a white field: the flag of the University of Alabama, the bitter rival of my college. I was wearing a bright orange Auburn hat. I tried to redirect.

    “Yes sir, your property is in our natural history museum catalog as a place where a certain species was collected in the past and we just wanted…” 

    “Let me see your ID.” 

    “My ID?” 

    “Yes, your driver’s license.” I had never been carded before while doing fieldwork, but there was a first time for everything. Shannon and I began fishing through our stuff trying to find our IDs. I handed him over my driver’s license and college ID. He looked it over carefully, glanced back up at my face, and then seemed to relent, but ever-so-slightly.

    “Auburn’s been here before lookin’ at our spring. I remember a tall guy who came here when I was a boy.” 

    “Tom Jones?” 

    “That sounds right. Yep, I used to help him. Ya’ll can go on ahead.” We had been carded by Albert Sanders, who by now was substantially more mature if no less trusting of biologists than he was when he was 11. Perhaps his skepticism stemmed from the expectation that I would soon toss a salamander into my mouth. 

    “We can look around?” 

    “Do whatever you want.” 

Brownback Salamander eggs found under
a potted plant at Sander's Spring.
    We spent the whole afternoon exploring the property. The 
main spring issued from a cement cylinder surrounded by watercress. There were dozens of plastic potted plants along this and several other springs, and the main run still fed into long-abandoned aquaculture holding ponds that were skimmed with duckweed and a tiny reddish floating aquatic fern. We turned a few rocks and found Brownback Salamanders, among many others. When we turned over the potted plants we found several nests of the Brownback Salamander—the females had lain their eggs along the bottom of the plastic pots instead of their usual nesting sites on the underside of rocks. After allowing the water to clear, we found that most of the nests were attended by females, and some of them, perhaps most of them, were also attended by males. The Sanders family had inadvertently created an ideal nesting ground for these salamanders. They were virtually culturing them in their spring. 

The Sander's Spring pumphouse.
    After a while Al Sanders caught up with us and soon reverted to his childhood role of salamander catcher. Despite lightening up considerably, Al never lost that somewhat severe look, and rarely smiled. Frogs called from the holding ponds and down the valley near Shoal Creek. Remembering that Tom Jones had found all three of the different kinds of salamanders here—“aquatica types” “bislineata types” and “intermediates”—we walked across their broad pasture to Shoal Creek. I thought if we explored the Shoal Creek ridge we might find some Two-lined Salamanders very close to the spring. This would allow for a strict genetic comparison. After searching a small mountain stream feeding into Shoal Creek we came up empty handed. Then we noticed Al Sanders was wading in Shoal Creek, turning rocks. He called out to us, with his hand closed firmly around something. He held out his hand and I held mine under it. He opened it and out dropped a yellowish salamander. She was a gravid female who would no doubt lay her eggs in Shoal Creek, a totally different environment from the spring up near the house. She was yellowish but proportioned like a Brownback Salamander. We had finally found one of Tom Jones’ “intermediates,” and the credit belonged to Tom’s helper from thirty years ago.

The elusive "intermediate" Brownback Salamander
found by Albert Sanders.
    We finally understood the confusing range of variation exhibited by these salamanders, and it became very clear how Tom Jones would have come away confused and inconclusive without the genetic tools that were available to us. 

    With those tools we were able to finally explain what was going on.

Don't miss Part IV tomorrow

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