Friday, January 31, 2014

Part V: The Conclusion of Do Endangered Species Really Halt Progress? A Case Study Like You've Never Heard

Part V: Hoss 

Make sure to first read Part IIIIII, and IV

Shannon Hoss. Don't mess with her.
   In the end Atticus Finch wasn’t needed. Shannon and that old confederate Jim had finally had enough, and they spoke out about the delinquency of the whole operation at another meeting between key players. By voicing her disapproval it looked like Shannon may have won the whole war. This may come to you as surprising, but you have never had to face Shannon. I have frequently been on the receiving end of her scorn, and you must take me for my word, it is unpleasant. You must imagine her scolding you, narrowing her eyes at you, with a hand on her hip. Then you would understand.

    ALDOT was already starting to back down—due to the new revelation that there were many more than just a handful of endangered salamanders on that hill—and it looked like they might shelve the whole project. We triumphantly continued looking for the last stragglers on the hill, knowing that they were all going to get to go home soon, and that due to the fakery of those shysters we would soon have a most remarkable mark-recapture dataset, bought and paid for by the evil-doers themselves. Like I said, her name is Hoss.

    I was rappelling along the hill, scanning for Phaeognathus faces when I heard the unmistakable banshee of sliding tires followed by a series of hollow clunks, combined with the swooshing sound of lots of parting vegetation. It sounded like a large tree had fallen down over near the highway, but the blood in my veins turned cold because I knew exactly what had happened. I looked up, and could see a pair of headlights off in the distance—cutting the dark like searchlights, pointing straight up in the air. We called out to each other, wondering what we should do, but we were dangling from ropes and by the time we got up to the top of the hill we could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. We decided to keep working. Privately, we were scared of what might happen if we showed up to the crash site and locals realized we were the no-good, evil biologists who were so obviously responsible for this travesty.

    When we were done for the night the emergency vehicles were still there. On our way back to our car we could see the wreck, illuminated by flood lights. It was upside down at the bottom of a ravine on the other side of the road. To this day I have no idea how the driver managed to slide off the highway so badly. It had rained, and so the road was a little wet, but we never found out whether they had slid off going up or down the hill, nor the details of the accident, other than the fact that everyone had gotten out OK. The car was facing uphill, so if they were heading down the hill the car would have had to have spun completely around. It looked like the jeep from Jurassic Park, after the Tyrannosaur had its way with it and tossed it over the cliff. We got back to our vehicle, and a local was there with reflective clothing and a glow stick, guiding traffic. We talked to him a little bit about the accident, sheepishly trying to avoid conversation about salamanders. He brought it up.

“The road’s unsafe.”

“I don’t think so. Why aren’t there guard rails? Why don’t they warn people? Were they speeding? Were they drinking?”

“They care more about salamanders than people’s lives.”

    I tried to make this point, which Atticus Finch and I firmly believe is a good one: There are lots of places that are unsafe in this country, and it’s not up to us to save people’s lives if they want to be stupid. By that logic, we should fill the Grand Canyon all the way to the rim to make it safe for people who would commit suicide by throwing themselves over.

    Unaffected, he looked away, repeating, “They care about salamanders more than people’s lives.”

    With this, I realized I was not going to be able to convince this man of my point of view, or any point of view, and we got the heck out of there.

    Eventually, Shannon called me excitedly one night, boasting that she’d finally captured Captain Pussycat. All told, we found nearly a hundred of the rare Red Hills Salamanders. They all got PIT tags, and since ALDOT wasn’t sure what to do, they delayed the road realignment project indefinitely. One day all the salamanders—the biggest, smallest, pinkest, and most timid Red Hills Salamanders known—every one of them, got to go home. Shannon carefully returned them all to the exact burrow where they were captured.

    The flags remained, and an expert on the species now goes down there once a month to scan the burrows with a heavy-duty wand, which can read their individual microchips like the bar code scanner at the grocery store. This particular device can scan through up to a foot of solid rock, so it’s not necessary to see the salamander to know it’s there. The most detailed study of this species ever attempted is now underway.

    A year or two later Jim and I accompanied a pair of ALDOT biologists who were scoping out a different pathway for the road. We poked around a slope a hundred meters or so away from the excellent hillside we’d surveyed a few years before, looking for burrows. There were surveyor’s flags along the slope, but these did not indicate salamander burrows, but instead where the new path of the highway would go. It looked like the road would have to take a much wider turn to go the way they wanted it to go now. Jim wasn’t sure if this new, improved project would ever materialize, but ALDOT was footing the bill, so he’d do the surveys.

    Interest in taming the road still persists, and as long as it does, the salamanders will never be completely safe. They may need to find some other home, perhaps somewhere other than the hills of south Alabama where they’ve survived for twenty million years. Monroe County Probate Judge Greg Norris was recently interviewed by the Monroeville Journal, and the journal said that Phase II of the project would continue “as soon as the Red Hill Salamander issue can be resolved.”

The End

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Part IV of Do Endangered Species Really Halt Progress? A Case Study Like You've Never Heard

Part IV: Local Pork and Atticus Finch 

Make sure to first read Part III, and III

The largest and the smallest (possibly) Red Hills
Salamanders ever discovered.

   We started learning all kinds of interesting little tidbits about Red Hills Salamanders, many of which were not previously known. That is one of the great things about being involved in the study of such a unique and recently discovered animal: almost everything we were learning was new to science. We soon had one of the best population estimates for this species, and we knew with good certainty the size, age, and sex distribution of the population. We found the world’s largest Red Hills Salamander. By uncanny luck, this was the first one I ever caught, and the one I described in the beginning of this story. We found perhaps also the smallest. This tiny, hatchling-sized Phaeognathus was only about an inch and a half long, but he had his face sticking out of a burrow just like an adult. We had to tenderly lure him out to catch him. Interestingly, at that size, the body proportions of Red Hills Salamanders are much more like ordinary lungless salamanders, and they don’t seem as eel-like as the adults. I also had the pleasure to discover an individual with an aberrant color pattern; a leucistic specimen lacking the pigment melanin, which made her appear completely pink. 

    After a few weeks we also discovered a deeply troubling pattern: the recipient site contained hardly any burrows, and the site to be destroyed by the unneeded road diversion was stuffed with salamanders. At first we didn’t know how many of the burrows were occupied. Soon it became clear that nearly every single burrow was occupied. There were probably a couple of hundred salamanders there. Even the part of the slope covered with kudzu was packed with Red Hills Salamanders. At first the project didn’t seem so heartless, since we were only going to be moving a few salamanders off a hill overrun by kudzu to a nice ravine right next door. But then we discovered this was one of the finest localities for the species yet known.

The cute little juvenile Red Hills Salamander has body
proportions  similar to other typical salamanders.
    We discussed this new revelation one night after we’d captured and bagged another batch of salamanders. They were lying in the back seat in a cooler, each of them housed in their own portable burrow—a PVC pipe—the stacks of pipes like an Alabama salamander trailer park of sorts. We would do some more hunting the next morning and then return them to the live animal collection at Auburn, where they were set up individually in critter carriers. They were all doing quite well. Amphibians can be a nightmare to keep alive in captivity, and species often do quite well for weeks before inexplicably liquefying with no warning or previous symptoms. The Red Hills Salamanders were doing great, feasting on crickets, and we had only lost a couple in captivity. We were getting a little antsy though, and we wanted to either return them to their home burrows or to the recipient site. We didn’t want to keep them in captivity until they all died. We talked about this on the road between the study site and our hotel in Monroeville, the inspiration for the setting of the book and film To Kill a Mockingbird. As we spoke, our voices became drowned out by a big booming tractor trailer. The truck groaned loudly and geared down, and started passing us. Our little truck lurched and shook as the big beast stormed past. It was loaded down with freshly cut pines.

    Up the road a ways we saw it turn off to a big pulp mill, one of those mills that stinks the whole area up with an unnatural, chemical-urine smell, like a tentacled alien from another galaxy farted in your face. There was still plenty of logging going on here in the Red Hills.

    The next week we went back down and Shannon shared more alarming news. She had a meeting with an official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the entity charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act—an ALDOT biologist, Jim Godwin, and some other players involved in the road taming project. As they spoke, it became clear to her that nobody seemed to care that this was after all a very robust population they intended to move. And, she learned some very interesting gossip about this road project from one of the contacts. The rumor was that a local politician recommended this road realignment under very dubious auspices, as one might imagine. It turned out that—as anyone with even a little common sense could have judged—the road was not particularly dangerous, and that the local pulp mill had lobbied this pork-hungry politician to straighten out the road so that their trucks could haul a little faster. Nobody had suggested putting up guard rails, or posting a highway patrolman there to enforce the speed limit, because nobody really expected anybody to honor speed limit. They wanted to be able to continue to speed, and the real reason for the road relocation was to shave a few minutes off the transport time of logging trucks, which of course were one of the reasons the Red Hills Salamander was endangered in the fifth place.

    Dumbfounded, she pressed the contact for more information. This politician had actually gotten himself into a small scale environmental fight here in the hills of south Alabama, a sort of Spotted Owl war in miniature. But he wasn’t fighting a bunch of smelly hippies, or grungy, tree-spiking eco-terrorists, or some slick, firebombing cell of the Environmental Liberation Front. He was at war with a local elementary school class. Having caught wind of the sliminess of the politician’s approach, a teacher had her students send letters to their congressman, and a microcosmic south Alabama endangered species poop storm broke out. As the biologists on the project, we found ourselves tangled in this same poopy snare. The controversy came complete with idiotic misstatements of truth—otherwise known as lies—and gross exaggerations. People around town were demonizing the salamanders, and saying that the environmentalists cared more about some slimy, stupid purple salamander than they did the safety of motorists. These sentiments echoed perfectly the opinions of the loggers who went up against the Spotted Owl, who insisted the federal government cared more about owls than people. Nobody seemed to care that the road was in fact harmless to all but those who chose to flagrantly break the local speed limit.

Photo from Wikimedia.
    We discussed these issues self-righteously on our way down to the Red Hills one night, jabbering endlessly and swearing monstrously, cursing that no-good dirty politician and his no-good logging company cronies straight to the fiery gates of the underworld. We were extremely certain of the righteousness of our side, and scoffed at the stupidity of the other side, and of their greed and the hypocrisy of their devious ways. We needed only Atticus Finch on our side—or at least Gregory Peck—to be more certain that we were right and that we—and especially the salamanders—were victims of a great injustice and ugly prejudice. Then we would have known for sure that we that we would tragically lose this fight.

Check back tomorrow for the epic conclusion!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Part III of Do Endangered Species Really Halt Progress? A Case Study Like You've Never Heard

Part III: Captain Pussycat

Make sure to first read Part I and II

    If you were under the impression that endangered species have some sort of privileged status in the eyes of the federal government, you have obviously never heard the story of the folks in Alma, Georgia, who killed a federally protected Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) and wound up on the front page of the local newspaper holding the evidence.  The headline said: "That’s a big snake!" 

    You know what happened to them? The law—the Endangered Species Act is a federal law—states that direct killing of endangered species is punishable by a stiff fine. Folks have been fined $100,000 for killing Bald Eagles. For the locals in Alma, Georgia, there was no action. No fine. Nothing. These people are probably still not even aware that they broke a federal law. The state herpetologist John Jensen begged his superiors to at least issue a public service announcement, or force the newspaper to print a retraction. Or to at least use this incident as an educational opportunity. Instead: nothing.

The Alabama Red-bellied Turtle.
    Nor have you heard of the plight of the Alabama Red-bellied Turtle (Pseudemys alabamensis). This federally endangered species is found only in the vicinity of Mobile Bay. That’s it. And, for decades, dozens of these turtles have been killed every year attempting to cross U.S. Hwy 90 near Mobile. These turtles are aquatic, so most of the individuals struck by cars are nesting females and hatchlings: the future of a slow growing, slow maturing, low-output species. Do you know what happened when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service learned that this was happening? Did they swoop down in sleek Blackhawk helicopters and shut down the highway, especially considering it is a superfluous route into Mobile that runs parallel to a perfectly good interstate highway? No. Instead, nothing happened. David Nelson, a professor at University of South Alabama, documented the road kills for ten years—ten years!—before anybody lifted a finger. Finally, the Department of Transportation installed some exclusion fences along the causeway. This was most likely in response to some bad press in the Mobile Register. The fences have reduced the number of turtles killed every year, but the carnage continues. Since 2001, 717 have been pulverized.

    Unfortunately, these are the more typical stories involving endangered species, which rarely get media play. Thousands of endangered species die or get moved around every year, acres of their habitat are developed, and nobody hears a thing. And it became pretty clear that the research I was involved with was yet another one of these sad cases. Made all the more sad by how typical it was.

    We arrived at the relocation site, and that’s when we truly began to wonder what we were doing. We crossed a small swampy creek floodplain, and to the south appeared the hill. The road wound up—gradually, and once—to the top. When we reached the top we pulled off a small logging road and I kept looking forward, as if we were supposed to keep going. As if the road ahead must certainly hook off somewhere up ahead at some vicious angle. I was looking for the dangerous curve. I never found one. There is a curve in the road, it is true, but all the Alabama Department of Transportation felt was needed to alert motorists to this menacing bend was a series of arrows pointing the direction of the curve, and a yellow 35 mph sign at the top of the hill heading down. No guard rail. No special warning. No flashing lights. And this was entirely understandable. The curve could be taken in most weather conditions at 55 mph with absolutely no problem. I’ve seen tough curves, even in Alabama, but this was not one of them. There is a tough curve at the top of a ridge in Georgia, where presumably a fatality occurred. Somebody must have literally drove off this mountain, because now there is a massive 25 mph sign flanked by a set of flashing lights alerting you of the danger, a humungous sign pointing the direction of the curve, and a retaining barricade that looks like it could catch an Abrams tank on the downward slope. This is a serious curve, and serious people did something about it. The curve in south Alabama is not serious.

    Still, Shannon reassured me that the goals of the project were not entirely clear, even to her, nor was it probable that the ALDOT would go through with taming of this unruly stretch of state highway after all. What we were involved in was merely a feasibility study. Mostly we were going to survey a nearby slope to determine the feasibility of introducing a couple of homeless salamanders into another area, and to see the feasibility of their survival on an adjacent slope. We weren’t exactly transporting wolves from Canada to Yellowstone. There was a good chance the project wouldn’t happen, but if it did, the road tamers wanted to be compliant, because not moving the salamanders would lead to what in endangered species parlance is known euphemistically as “take”. To “take” an endangered species means to kill it. Surprisingly, you can get a permit to do this, and you then only have to pay a modest fine for each hapless critter you “take”. Conceivably, a rich and very evil person could pay to “take” an endangered species out, and there is nothing you or I could do about it.

    Jim saw this project as a good opportunity to study the salamanders on ALDOT’s dime; we would be the first researchers to conduct a mark-recapture study on this species, and if it became necessary, the first to study the effects of translocation. And so we hit the slopes, with barbless fishhooks, and little cricket cages dangling from our belts. The hill was so steep that we had to wear harnesses and repel down a hundred feet or so from ropes anchored to sturdy trees. We started catching the salamanders at the removal site, each of us perfecting our own unique fishing style. Since 1961, fishing has become the Phaeognathus-catching technique of choice, but I soon became frustrated with it. Half the time the salamander would snatch the cricket right off the hook, and you wouldn’t even get a peak at the salamander inside the burrow. Soon I was trying to entice salamanders out of their burrow, allowing them to snap the cricket off the hook before my very eyes. They then quickly disappeared back down their holes.

A Red Hills Salamander perched at its burrow opening.
Photo courtesy Brad Wilson.
    Watching them hunt the cricket was fascinating and comical, and made me wonder how these magnificently stupid animals ever evolved in the first place. They would slowly and timidly poke from their burrows, eagerly approaching the cricket, blinking. Many would then quickly jerk back into their holes, unprovoked, and never show their faces again for the rest of the night. Others would stupidly maw at the cricket, lunging with their mouths closed, bonking the cricket with their eyes. Then, quite suddenly, at the very threshold of my patience, the salamander would deftly shoot its tongue out at least an inch and snatch the cricket right off the hook. A second later it was gone, back into the hill. I felt like reviving the spade technique.

    Throughout the night there were intermittent shouts of swearwords and frustrated screams that would drift along that hill in south Alabama, eventually to blend with the shimmering cadence of katydids. Punctuated occasionally with triumphant hoots when a salamander was brought in.

    I was told there was no way you could capture the salamanders with your bare hands and so I stuck with the fishing routine for several nights. After a while I could no longer stand it; I was having far too many salamanders get seven inches out of their burrow, only to playfully tongue my crickets. I decided to give it a try. I’m pretty sure the people who swore it was impossible to catch Phaeognathus out of their burrows had simply never captured any kind of salamander with their bare hands. I led a salamander out of its burrow with a cricket, first its head, then its neck, past its shoulders, and, amazingly, nearly halfway down its torso. It still clung to the walls of its burrow with its back legs and tail, ready to retract if needed. I grabbed it by the shoulders, and found that the warning had been legitimate—the salamander was slick and sucked itself back into the hole like somebody slurping up a noodle. But I maintained my grip, and after a panicked moment I was able to tug the sucker out. Soon the hill started sprouting dozens of numbered surveyor’s flags, which marked the location of both unoccupied and occupied burrows. As we continued to work, the number of burrows known to be occupied steadily grew.

    We were getting pretty good at catching them and soon I had my technique down pat. My method was to simply twizzle the burrow mouth with a small stick—no cricket necessary—and then wait. Usually a salamander would soon appear, and I’d lead him out a few inches and then snatch his butt right out of his hole. It was tremendous fun. Soon we started noticing that the occupants of certain burrows had distinct personalities. Recalcitrant salamanders became the stuff of legends, conjuring stories comparable to those involving great game fish or man-eating tigers: if you tried to catch them a few times and failed, they became extremely wary and nearly impossible to catch. One in particular, whose home was under flag number 47, occupied a small burrow along the base of the hill in an area of bare slope. He only came out occasionally, and when he was out, he almost never went after any bait, and when he did, he only offered a single attempt before disappearing for weeks. Shannon gave this salamander a moniker that can only be printed here as “Captain Pussycat.”

Check back tomorrow for part IV.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Part II of Do Endangered Species Really Halt Progress? A Case Like You've Never Heard

Part II: The Untamable Road

By Sean Graham

Make sure to first read Part I

    I will now relieve the crushing intensity of suspense that I have created with the set up of this story, and admit that I found no Red Hills Salamanders in Georgia. The beginning of the story took place in south Alabama, where it rightfully should have. After searching the Georgia Red Hills for Phaeognathus I came away with the following opinion: the general habitat of the Red Hills salamander is not unique. You can find nice forests with beeches, magnolias, diverse plants, and steep slopes in other areas of the Gulf Coast. You can find Hatchetigbee and Tallahatta limestones across the Chattahoochee in Georgia, and across the state line in Mississippi. However, what appears to be unique to the Alabama Red Hills, and to the home of Phaeognathus in particular, is the way these limestones erode. 

This is what Red Hills Salamander
burrows look like. I found this burrow in
Georgia, outside of their known range.
It got my hopes up.
    The Alabama Red Hills are loose enough and limey enough to erode into a soft, pliable soil that these salamanders can burrow into. The soil of the Chattahoochee Ravines was too hard, too compact. Although it wouldn’t surprise me too much if some intrepid herpetologist eventually finds a Red Hills Salamander in Georgia, I gave up searching there. 

    The point of all this being that the Red Hills Salamander is monumentally unique, and is only found in a few counties in south Alabama. Genetic studies show it is on a lonely branch of the salamander family tree, off by itself. It must be an ancient species that has been hanging on in the Red Hills for millions of years. When it became clear just how distinctive this beast is, and how narrowly distributed it is, and how its forest home could easily be destroyed by the rampant logging operations common throughout Alabama, biologists lead by Robert Mount petitioned for its listing under U.S. Endangered Species Act and succeeded. This salamander is now a peculiar example of an endangered species that is almost guaranteed to survive; where it occurs it can be very common, and they thrive as long as their slope forests remain intact. 

Much of the Red Hills is no longer cloaked
in luxurious mesic slope forest or diverse
Longleaf Pine forest. Instead, thousands of
acres of Slash Pine are grown in neat rows
in pine plantations.

    Though logging still persists on small, privately owned plots many of the big logging operations in the area do not attempt to harvest trees on the steep slopes where the salamanders are due to agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Instead, they virtually farm pine trees—cutting them down on a regular rotation like so many corn stalks—on the flat ridges and plains near the ravines, but leave the beech magnolia forests alone. The big timber companies for the most part deserve a pat on the back for their restraint and assistance with the preservation of the salamander. They have agreed to leave many of the slope forests alone indefinitely, and in fact it was a timber company biologist who discovered the population outside of its known range in Wilcox County. In the usual political climate associated with endangered species, one might expect loggers to keep such a discovery a secret or immediately clear cut the area, but this company alerted biologists and immediately moved to preserve the new site. Taking the long view, things are looking good for this salamander.

    So it was with some surprise that I found myself fishing for Phaeognathus in the fall of 2007, part of quite possibly the most bass ackward, stupid, unnecessary conservation project of all time. The complete insanity of this project was revealed to me and the other biologists involved only in piecemeal, and only after some time did we truly come to understand its ludicrousness. At first we heard only small details about the project. Only later did we come to understand its true scale.

Jim Godwin and I on a swamp adventure.
    Our lab at Auburn University was an excellent group of true, down and dirty field biologists, and we had just acquired an old-school professional named Jim Godwin. Godwin resembles a malnourished Confederate general: a spry, sinewy old codger with enough children to shame a 19th century Mormon. He is kind of a free-lance biologist and does surveys for federal or state agencies for a living, and he was now drawing a paycheck through Auburn. So, we sort of joined forces, with Jim getting projects and having at his disposal an endless supply of enthusiastic graduate students ready to work at a moment’s notice. Over the summer, he had a few students rappel down some slopes to count and flag Red Hills Salamander burrows and characterize the microhabitats around them. As autumn approached, I got to go down for the first time myself. We would be catching the salamanders, and I was very excited about that. I had not even seen the legendary amphibian, and I was not only going to be able to see them, but we were actually permitted to harass the sin out of them. To top it all off, I was actually getting paid to go.

    Shannon Hoss had recently graduated with her Master’s degree from our lab, and so she was heading the project for Jim until she left for graduate school in California. Shannon is a very intelligent and thoughtful woman, but her last name is wholly appropriate. She is opinionated, almost three feet tall, swears as much as I do, and will not let an issue rest, ever, until she has spoken her peace. In short, she’s wonderful. It was a three hour drive down to the Red Hills from Auburn, and along the way we talked a little bit about the project. She was under the impression that we were going to capture all of the salamanders along a hillside, and then bring them back to Auburn, set them up in captivity, where eventually they would receive small microchips—called PIT tags—surgically. After they healed, we would set them all loose on an adjacent hillside.

    “Why?” I asked, a question that would become more perplexing and difficult to answer in the coming weeks.

    She explained that a very dangerous road lurked near the habitat, and they were going to straighten it out, and in so doing they would destroy the hillside. The salamanders had to go.

    This may come to some readers as quite a surprise given the number of well-publicized stories about endangered species causing all manner of developments to come to a screeching halt. Everybody knows that endangered species get in the way of development all the time. What most people don’t know is that this really isn’t true. You never hear about how development eliminates the habitat of endangered species all the time. Instead you’ll hear about the few well publicized cases when it becomes controversial. Many are familiar with the
story of the Snail Darter, a tiny fish useless to any but the most shameless fisherman, which brought the mighty Tennessee Valley Authority to its knees, and ended (temporarily) their noble quest to tame yet another menacing river with yet another hydroelectric dam. Many know about that blasted Spotted Owl, whose plight momentarily caused a moratorium on the clear cutting of the last remaining old growth temperate rainforests on public land—your land—in the Pacific Northwest.

    With these stories of tree huggers and their pesky endangered species in mind, you might wonder how in the world it came to pass that biologists would be undertaking a forced experimental removal and relocation of a federally endangered species to make a curved state highway straight. We too started to wonder about this, and the more we learned, the more we wondered.

Check back tomorrow for Part III.

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.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links (January 24th, 2014)

A plague of snakes: but they're the victims.

Scientific American selects the best animal stories of 2013.

Spotting and photographing a crocodile in Singapore is big news.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to conserve crocodiles in Venezuela.

If sardine populations on the West Coast continue to crash, they could bring everything else down with them.

Whales and dolphins are collateral damage in our taste for seafood.

It can be tough to be a reptile. Here's a specialized parasite that lives in their lungs.

How you might doom a species by trying to save it.

Shark long thought extinct found in a Kuwait fish market.

Are some of those extinct Galapagos tortoise species really extinct?

Komodo Dragons, from National Geographic. Komodo Dragons, eating a dolphin. Because hey, lizards may need to get social too.

Population of critically-endangered rabbits a South Africa nature preserve.

More on that recently discovered species of tapir in Brazil.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hognosed Snakes: Goofy Opossums of the Snake World --A Guest Post Comic--

Hi all-I have long enjoyed the work of today's guest artist and was very pleased when he expressed interest in working on artwork to help people appreciate how cool snakes are. I hope you enjoy the following comic by Ethan Kocak; if you do, let him know below! -Dave.

About the Artist: Ethan Kocak

I'm an illustrator and cartoonist interested in the natural world in general and herpetology specifically. I have kept and bred many reptiles over the years, including my beloved pair of New Caledonian Giant Geckos (Rhacodactylus leachianus) and Axolotls (Ambystoma mexicanum). I hold a B.S. in Media Arts and Animation and have an endless fascination with biology, evolution and life science, which I try to use to inform my art. I am most known around the web for writing, drawing and otherwise cobbling together the herpetology-themed webcomic "The Black Mudpuppy" which is about an Aztec god trapped in an axolotl salamander and forced to do good deeds against his will. I also sometimes write herpetoculture pieces for the Wandering Herpetologist website. I believe conservation and education are very important, and I hope the medium of comics might be able to help with outreach.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday Roundup: This Week's Wildlife Links (January 17th, 2014)

There has been a lot of wolf talk recently, and not just on this blog:

California prepares for the return of the wolf.

Debate continues over whether Maine is wolf habitat.

While California and Maine discuss, wolves have been creeping back into Missouri.

Over in Europe, wolves are doing fairly well, "After an absence of 70 years, the wolf is back in the Guadarrama hills and breeding just 40 miles from Madrid."

In other news:

When people think they see penguins in Hawaii, what common bird are they actually looking at?

Lions are nearly extinct in western Africa.

A symbol of the range returns home: restoring Bighorn Sheep in Utah.

There has been a lot of news recently about a permit to hunt Black Rhinos being sold. Can trophy hunting really help conservation?

The fight to save the Hellbender.

How studying ocean currents may help eel conservation.

Bolivian Blue Macaw refuge doubles in size.

A long read about the recent death of a Costa Rican sea turtle advocate.

Narwhal smuggling ring busted.

Did I miss something interesting? Let me know below.

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