Friday, November 6, 2015

Counting Toes at Pond Creek

I moved to Auburn in January 2007 and my first night on campus I was up until about 1 A.M. in the herpetological collections. I looked fondly at all the specimens, staring with awe at the hundreds of jars. Bob Mount’s The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama (arguably the best state herpetology book in existence) contains excellent locality maps for each Alabama species, and almost every dot on those maps represents the collection locality of a specimen housed in this museum. I admired specimens of Red Hills Salamanders, Georgia Blind Salamanders, One-toed Amphiumas, and Southern Dusky Salamanders.

I had already examined Southern Dusky Salamanders at the Georgia Museum of Natural History, after I’d gone looking throughout southern Georgia for sites that still contained this species. I was not very successful. After checking dozens of sites, searching for hundreds of hours, and getting thoroughly tangled in the most dank, brier-infested swamps that South Georgia has to offer, I found only five Southern Duskies. The Southern Dusky Salamander truly appears to be in trouble. 

 Southern Dusky Salamander (top) collected in
Conecuh National Forest in 1967. It is much darker
and skinnier than its more common relative,
the Spotted Dusky Salamander (bottom).
Now I was looking at specimens that had been collected in Alabama, which were far fewer in number than those known from Georgia, and writing down the collection sites. I would try my luck here. I had mentioned this to Mark Bailey a couple of weeks earlier at a conference, and told him that one of the sites was within Conecuh National Forest. He said he had a trailer down there I could crash in while I was looking. He gave me his number.

            Next weekend I found myself driving all over the Conecuh trying to find the site. It was one of those glorious March days where it’s partially sunny but the sky is peopled by purple-blue clouds—so it’s warm but still cool. Jessamine was in bloom and twining up the swamp trees. It immediately became clear that the collection locality for Southern Duskies in the Conecuh had not been cataloged correctly. The information said the site was at the Hogfoot Creek Bridge over County Rd 24, but Hogfoot Creek never intersects that road. That left two possibilities: either the Pond Creek or the Five Runs Creek crossing of County Rd 24. I checked both. The bridge at Five Runs Creek doesn’t appear to have suitable habitat, but if you go upstream a ways there are some nice blackwater sloughs near the creek with cypresses and thick, black, mucky accumulations of leaf litter and coarse woody debris—the perfect haunt for Southern Dusky Salamanders. I’m reasonably sure this is where the species was collected in the past. I’ve been through there more than five times digging everywhere and have never found any duskies. If this was the collection locality for the two Conecuh National Forest specimens, they are almost certainly no longer present.

            The bridge over Pond Creek has a nice seepage area near it, with thick accumulations of sphagnum moss, gurgling peaty muck, and whitewater trickles with carnivorous butterworts. I dug through this stuff crawling along on my hands and knees and started finding salamanders immediately. I found Dusky Salamanders, which were merely the seepage-loving Spotted Dusky Salamander, and not the much rarer Southern Dusky. I found Two-Lined and Three-lined Salamanders, Red Salamanders, and a Lesser Siren. I then spotted a nice medium-sized log laying in the muck, perfectly perpendicular to a small, clear rivulet. It looked like a good log.

Underneath, I exposed a black, foot-long, finger-thick torsional being and quickly reached for it. It deftly wriggled away, diving into the dark murk. I scooped with my hands, lifting it back out of the muddy water in time for a second opportunity. I cradled it with both hands, juggling it as it noodled between my fingers. Amphiumas can crawl backward, sideways, and forward with equal dexterity—obviously an advantage for living in a soupy medium—and for this reason they’re exceedingly challenging to bring home. I juggled it a few more seconds, simultaneously dug into my field bag, retrieved a ziplock, and finally got it secured. I examined the critter up close, scrutinizing the toes. In one of the more humorous etymological scenarios imaginable, Amphiumas are identified by the number of toes they have.

Amphiumas are elongate, eel-like salamanders with two pairs of ridiculously tiny limbs, and the species with the most digits has only twelve, total. Just to review, most humans have twenty. Many elongate creatures have reduced limbs and toes, and some poor elongate vertebrates have no toes at all. Snakes and glass lizards are Conecuh’s completely legless and toe-less vertebrates. There are three Amphiuma species, each with fewer and fewer toes. The Three-toed Amphiuma has three toes on each tiny limb, giving it twelve toes. They’re found in western Alabama and tributaries of the Alabama River as far east as Tuskegee National Forest. The Two-toed Amphiuma has two toes on each limb, giving it a grand total of only eight little toes. It is found throughout the southern part of Alabama. And, yes, there is a One-toed Amphiuma, which has four total toes. It is the rarest Amphiuma of all, and is only found in a few scattered localities along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mississippi. At the time of this particular visit to CNF, a One-toed Amphiuma could have counted the total known Alabama localities for its species on both hands: it had been collected once each in Mobile and Baldwin Counties.

I counted my Amphiuma’s toes. I counted them again. I stepped out into the sunlight, looking carefully, and counted again. Four toes. Now, don’t get me wrong, it didn’t have four toes on each leg, which actually would have been a more startling discovery, because it would have likely meant that I had found a totally new Amphiuma species. No, so far as I could tell, this specimen was a One-toed Amphiuma.  

            I had never seen the species in my life. I checked again. There the Amphiuma slithered, and each time its little foot pressed up against the ziplock bag, I could see only one toe. And hilariously, I could see the single toe bend against the bag. It wasn’t just a teeny peg leg without a foot, or a tiny leg with a teeny-weeny pegged foot without any toes, it was exactly as advertised: the pathetic leg had the requisite three joints but just one toe. Its face was conical with tiny eyes, another key feature common to Amphiuma pholeter, but not the larger Amphiumas, which have more flattened faces.  I started getting excited. I was all alone out in the mucky swamp, with nobody to share my excitement with. I called Mark.

            “Mark. Sean Graham. I’m down here in the Conecuh.”
            “Oh, hey Sean.”
            “Hey, do you guys have pholeter here?”
The cell signal faded and died.
            He called back. “What’s that you said?”
            “Hey, you guys don’t have pholeter here, do you?”           
            “No, I looked around for them in Conecuh back in the 80s when the Bog Frog was discovered in Florida—looking for Bog Frogs and pholeter—but we never found them.”
            “Well, I think I’ve got one.”

            From there the conversation descended into the nerdy hoots and hollers that usually accompany herpetological discovery, and we excitedly discussed the find in nauseating detail and with pretentious headiness. It turned out that Mark was a heartbeat away from submitting the final report of a three year herpetofaunal inventory to the Forest Service, and, gambling, he held off until he could see the specimen. He drove to meet me at the Pond Creek Bridge and looked over the specimen for several minutes and never once counted any more than four toes. I later showed the specimen to Craig Guyer, who similarly counted and quadruple counted those toes, going as far as to look at the toes under a dissection microscope. He verified it as a One-toed Amphiuma, the first ever for Covington County, Alabama, and only the third encountered in the state, ever. Mark added this discovery to his final report in the nick of time.

I found out much later that my discovery of this species in the Conecuh filled Mark with good-natured, competitive resentment—the way a crow flies, the seepage site is barely a mile from his house.

The site where I discovered One-toed Amphiumas within Conecuh National Forest is special. We have found nearly ten salamander species in four families there, and so perhaps more salamanders occur in this small muck hole than almost any other place of comparable size in the whole state. Sadly, I never did find a Southern Dusky Salamander in Alabama. I ended up finding another One-toed Amphiuma at the seepage site near Pond Creek—which Mark and I now affectionately refer to as “Pholeter Springs.” The implication being that the Southern Dusky Salamander—which before 1970 was frequently collected in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama—is now a rarer species than one that has been found in Alabama only as many times as it has toes.

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