Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Slender Margin for Survival (Part I)

It is said that in the desert you can follow doves to water. Look for them heading to tinajas or oases in the evening, and keep your eyes on them. Watch for them to disappear over the horizon and mark the spot. They make a straight line flight, and you can follow them. They may save your life.


    When I was a kid I spent too much time thumbing through field guides and nature books and not enough time playing basketball with the neighborhood kids. So instead of a real estate agent I became a biologist. I remember looking through Robert Stebbin’s Field Guide to Western Amphibians and Reptiles and being captivated by all the exotic desert creatures of the great western deserts. Gila Monsters. Sidewinders. Snakes with patches on their noses and lizards with fringes on their toes, all for dealing with sand. It was like opening up a book about the Sahara Desert, but these beasts lived in my own country. I wanted to see them all. As I grew up I made frequent trips “Out West” and got to see many of them. Now I’m fortunate enough to call the desert my home.

    One improbable creature in particular captured my imagination. I would flip back and forth from the pictures in the field guide to range maps in the back—checking to see how close I was to each species. There, on plate 8, in the amphibian section, was a small tan colored salamander with a totally inappropriate name. It was called the Desert Slender Salamander. Confused, I checked the range map. There, on the bottom left of the map, down at the base of California, was a single “x” marking the spot.

    The Desert Slender Salamander was discovered in 1969 by a California game warden digging out a pit to make water more available for Desert Bighorn. As he dug out the gravel at the base of a wet cliff, the salamanders wriggled out. He knew this was unusual because the location was positively surrounded by desert. And everyone knows salamanders need moisture—if not permanent, cool water—to survive. The steep slopes leading down to the wet cliff face were covered sparsely with Cholla, Agaves, and Beavertail Prickly Pear.  This was the Colorado section of the Sonoran Desert, which stretches from southwestern Arizona to southern California into Mexico. Parts of it are nearly as hot and dry as Death Valley. Yet in some places subsurface water flows in protected canyons. Where a trickle of permanent water flows you will find the California Fan Palm: a stately, shaggy relict of wetter times. During the last Ice Age it was cooler and wetter and the palms and salamanders were widespread. Now the palms dot southern California sporadically and give some of its cities their names: Palm Desert. Twenty-nine Palms. Palm Springs. Thousand Palms. And in one tiny protected palm oasis a tiny salamander similarly clings to existence.  It’s called Hidden Palm Canyon. 

    These salamanders are a very long way from their nearest neighbors, so they too are considered a relict of the ancient past. They show primitive features not found in close relatives found along the coast and in the mountains, so they were described as a new species: Batrachoseps aridus.  Not long after their formal description, due to the fact that their entire global habitat totaled no more than about 20 square meters, they became protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Repeated surveys in the 1980s discovered one additional population about 4 miles away from the original, and determined there was perhaps about 100-500 Desert Slender Salamanders in the original locality. Their fragile habitat was set aside as a permanent preserve by the California Department of Fish and Game and people were forbade entry.

    Decades went by and flash floods destroyed some of the habitat. Since the 1980s dedicated searches for the salamanders ceased. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote reports about the salamanders every five years but stopped keeping tabs on their populations. Biologists checking out the canyon for bats would occasionally look around for the salamanders. But the last time anyone saw them alive was during an impromptu search back in 1997.

    Over winter break from classes, an excellent opportunity presented itself: I needed to do reconnaissance for a desert biology class I teach over the summer, so the school picked up the tab for my travel. An idea crossed my mind when I saw how close one of the locations I was scouting was to the home of the Desert Slender Salamander. I started making calls. After some phone tag and not a little bureaucratic navigation, I contacted the right people and arranged to search the canyon. An official with the California Fish and Game would have to accompany me, and he only had a day to spare. It would be a one shot chance. And it would be a dream come true.

    We drove through Palm Springs the day we were to meet Eddy Konno of the California Fish and Game. The sun was bright, but a cold snap had descended on southern California. They were predicting snow in a few days, and in fact they were right. We drove along stoplight-infested two lane highways lined with lawns and date palms. The Coachella Valley to the east is developed with dense clusters of homes, convenience stores, and shopping malls. Within and around this irrigated sea of humanity there are patches of pure desert. The roads wriggle their way up the slopes of the Santa Rosa Mountains and abruptly stop. I looked to the west up the steep slope of the mountains and could see a lump of dark rock straight ahead—Black Hill. The rock up there is stark and barren. I could see the sterile brown slopes folding down to form Deep Canyon. Somewhere up there Hidden Palm Canyon led into Deep Canyon. It really is desert. I couldn’t believe it.

    We met Eddy and followed him up the Santa Rosas to a pull out. Along the way Eddy frantically gestured out his window at something. My wife Crystal looked up in time to see a pair of Desert Bighorns—another kind of desert survivor. The road was too curvy for me to look while driving, so I leaned up low just in time to see them out of the rear view mirror. There they stood almost comically at the very edge of a steep road cut and looked over at the cars below. They were tan and pale and much smaller and more yellow than their Rocky Mountain cousins.

    Eddy led us from the pull out down a wash cutting through rocky desert terrain planted with Jojoba, Catclaw, Cacti, and Bursage. He was maybe in his fifties with just-graying hair but he was fleet footed like most field biologists. I was a little worried that he might have been a city boy or out of shape by the way he talked about the canyon. He said it was really a cliff that led down to the spot and the last time he was in there he came out with cholla stems sticking to his butt. Cholla, if you’re not familiar, is a vicious cactus species of the desert Southwest that has detachable stems with sinister, microscopic barbs that make them very hard to remove. They call it Jumping Cholla because it seems to leap on to you from nowhere. They are sticky, such that by removing the stem from your butt with your hand, you will only succeed in getting the stem stuck to your fingers. Inexplicably, Crystal came to breakfast with Cholla sticking out of her scalp one morning near Tucson. But I believe the dangers of Cholla have been overstated by southwesterners. Unlike the impenetrable thickets of briars and blackberries we have to deal with in the southern Swamps, the chollas are very sparsely distributed in the desert, and in mind anyway, they are easy to avoid.

    Regardless of Eddy’s feelings about Cholla, he set a blistering pace down the arroyo and into the canyon, and so I knew immediately he was a true field biologist. And soon enough I found he was indeed correct about the cliff that leads to the fragile oasis of the Desert Slender Salamander.

No comments: