Friday, February 6, 2015

A Slender Margin for Survival (Part II)

      By Sean Graham (view Part I here)

    We peered over a spill off and could see half of the world’s
 habitat for Desert Slender Salamanders directly below. At the lip of the wash was a dry waterfall straight down. There was no chance anyone who fell off the cliff would survive. The north facing wall of Deep Canyon was nearly as steep. The south facing wall was doable, but it was stocked with loose rubble and sharp plants. The plan was to tie our gear to a rope and lower it down the cliff, so that nobody had to work their way down the slope with a heavy pack. Eddy brought a 100 foot rope, which we all hoped would be long enough to do the job. We tried Eddy’s camping gear first, and he simply tossed it over the edge. With a loud thunk we heard it hit the sand below. I peered over. The rope was exactly long enough. A one hundred foot cliff. I went down first so that I could un-tie the gear and send the next shipment over. It was dicey, but I managed to avoid killing myself and avoided all the cholla. Soon Crystal and Eddy were down, and we made our first cursory inspection of the site.

    The place was gorgeous. The cliff walls were adorned with delicate ferns and no doubt during the growing season wildflowers grow there as well. A small grove of three California Fan Palms lived in a diagonal row just down the sandy wash. Another grew up along the north canyon wall. Their shaggy coats grew like tawny beards below their giant green fronds. The fronds made whispering sounds in the wind. The water from the seepage was a bright algal green in contrast to the dusty tans of the cliff walls. Some incongruous aquatic plant grew in the tiny rill—perhaps the rarest and most precarious life form of Hidden Palm Canyon. After all, while the Desert Slender Salamander is an amphibian, at least it belongs to a fully terrestrial group of salamanders.

    Eddy pointed out the precise location where the first Desert Slender Salamander was discovered by Russel Murphey back in 1969. It was at the very bottom of the spill off, which presently had a slight trickle, some of which was frozen. The bottom of the spill off is a marl-gravel supporting a perpendicular wall of slick grey rock; about twenty feet above that are hanging gardens of grasses, mosses, and Maiden Hair Fern perched upon the cliff face. These form a band about twenty feet tall, and are capped by another forty feet or so of bare rock up to the place where we lowered our bags. Another series of the salamanders was collected where we stood in 1970 by Arden Brame, who went on to describe the species. At that time the location was a nice hanging garden of Maiden Hair Ferns, but around 1976 a flash flood scoured the habitat out. Eddy explained that biologists in the 1980s began searching the other ferny spots along the wall to our left, and found the salamanders there. Until another flash flood scoured that spot out. Eddy then walked us over to the north facing side of the wall about twenty meters to the left of the spot where Murphey discovered the salamander. It was a pristine hanging garden of ferns perched atop the base of the canyon. This was the last place anyone saw the salamanders, back in 1997. Eddy knows this because Kimberly Nicol was the last person to ever see the salamander, and she showed him the very spot. It is incredible and harrowing to describe the places where people have found a species in such precise terms. You could fit all of these places in a modest home. It would make for a very quick survey. 

    We split up and began searching the area. We were under strict orders from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to disturb the habitat in any way. This meant we could not perform the most tried-and-true method for finding salamanders: turning over rocks. Our only hope was to find the salamanders out in the open—something that can be done at night with a headlamp, but typically not when it is below freezing. In fact the most thorough surveys for the species were done by searching at night. I tried to keep up a good attitude and optimism and told Eddy I had seen salamanders out at night under fairly cold conditions. But in the back of my mind I was pretty sure we would not find anything. But also in the back of my mind I hoped we still had a chance.

    We carefully walked the edge of the canyon and peered into the Maiden Hair fern, and went so far as to gently spread vegetation with our fingers to look underneath. The ferns were extraordinarily precarious along the edge of the wall. They held a tiny amount of black soil studded with small minerals. It was moist and rich and perfect for terrestrial salamanders. We even found a few invertebrates climbing around—a beetle, a roly-poly, and a millipede that gave us hope we could find another cold-blooded creature. 

    It was still daylight after our first effort, and it began getting cold while we set up camp. While we waited Eddy and I talked about conservation, salamanders, and his job. I love talking to professional biologists about their job. There is no end to the lunacy and dark humor of working in conservation, and these brave few usually have an endless supply of stories about maligned creatures, desk-bound bureaucrats, and disastrous projects. He was explaining to me how some farmer harvested his alfalfa field along with the state’s largest population of some endangered bird when a sharp hissing sound interrupted him. We both looked over while a dove struck down the canyon, veered upon sight of us, and then plunged down toward Deep Canyon to the east. 

    After a pause I started telling some story—I think I was telling him about the incredibly stupid effort to remove Red Hills Salamanders from a hillside in southern Alabama to straighten out a perfectly good road—and I got about thirty seconds into my story when four, then six, then eight Mourning Doves careened down the canyon, each with a whistling, wind-tearing hiss. I opened my mouth for maybe two seconds when another dozen birds dove by. Then another, and then another. Some perched in evergreen shrubs growing from the side of the canyon, and looked at us nervously, as if they were wondering how we humans had the audacity to monopolize this desert trickle when we had taken the entire Colorado River and turned it into Los Angeles. Whoosh. Whoosh. More doves descended the canyon. Whoosh. I tried to speak—whoosh, whoosh—and then my mouth was shut. Whoosh. Whoosh. More birds. We couldn’t talk over their wings. 

    I managed to say one more stupid, barbarian quip over their wondrous sounds, and babbled “Ok, at first this was cool, but now it’s starting to feel like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.”

    What an incredibly, irretrievably daft and unforgivably cynical thing to say under the circumstances! We were witness to a miraculous, wonderful display of natural beauty, and I made a lame movie reference.

    The birds continued to whistle down the canyon, slicing the air with their sharp wings each time up until it got cold and dark. We then made another pass looking for the salamanders. I made three slow, complete circuits around the perhaps 50 meters of cliff walls available to search. You’d need ropes to check all the habitat, and it would be better to search when it was warmer. I probed amongst the Maiden Hair, admiring the loose black grit, hoping for the tell-tale loop of a supple little salamander. 

     Some of the hanging plants concealed mysterious small chambers that disappeared back into the cliff. These were eroded from a strange, thin band of limey rock shoved between layers of tortured metamorphic rock. This thin band of foreign, secreted rock was probably responsible for the seepage. The best habitat was there. Tiny particles of grit sprinkled from the Maiden Hair roots when I spread the plants. I wondered how long it would take for such a deposit of soil to develop and become entangled and stabilized by plants. Surely centuries. I wondered how frequently flash floods would scour these delicate habitats in the past. I wondered whether runoff from the paved road a half mile upstream could be responsible for tearing these habitats down. I wondered whether these salamanders had a chance and thought that more than likely they did. The canyon is hidden and protected. There is water here, and moist soil. Hanging gardens still decorate much of the cliff face, and nobody has ever looked up there. They had survived here since the Ice Age ended, and will perhaps even out survive us. 

    None of us got much sleep that night. It got well below freezing and we didn’t bring much camping gear because of the cliff. We tried once more to find the salamanders in the morning, and struck out. I clamored up the hill and lifted our gear back up the cliff face, and everyone made it up the slope without mishap. When we made it back to our vehicles Eddy revealed that he had recently sustained a head trauma and felt dizzy and unbalanced the whole way back up. His doctor told him not to do anything like what we just did. A real field guy.

    Our little survey down in the canyon started something. Eddy is going to start sending somebody down into Hidden Palm Canyon once a month. Hopefully they’ll find them again soon, and they won’t forget about them again. Eddy will make it happen, despite being underpaid, overworked, and despite his head injury. But he’ll probably send someone else down there in his staid. I wish I could go look again and I’d love to be the one who found them again. But I’ll just be looking forward to getting an email from Eddy with a picture of the little desert survivor doing what it does best. Surviving. 

    In the desert, where water is scarcest, we are all close to the edge of survival. Whether a Desert Bighorn, a Desert Agave, Desert Iguana, or Desert Slender Salamander. We need the water—humans and Mourning Dove alike. In the desert, humans are for a brief moment closer to death than to being alive. Our need for water reveals our kinship to the other desert organisms. We are perhaps closer to survival here, but also in this way we are closer to being alive too. 

    It is said you can find water in the desert by following doves to an oasis. It might just save your life. Damn right.

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