Michael Ellis: California Slender Salamander

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A native amphibian, the California slender salamander, fascinates Michael Ellis.

As I was doing a little yard work yes, I’m still at it I moved a big pile of leaves and uncovered the most common salamander, actually I dare say the most common amphibian, in our region the California slender salamander. It is also known as the worm salamander and indeed it is thin with teeny, tiny legs.

Alarmed, its natural response was to thrash back-and-forth rapidly and then go perfectly still. I guess that strategy works most of the time. The color is rather cryptic mostly brown with a broad dark maroon stripe running right down the back. And when it abruptly stopped against the dirt, it was challenging to see.

If a predator does attack, the tail can be sacrificed and re-grown with little problem. One researcher watched a slender salamander twist its tail into a knot around a garter snakes head. It then secreted a substance that glued the snakes jaws shut for 48 hours. Don’t mess around with Slim!

California slender salamanders were originally considered one species thriving in the Coast Ranges from Monterey to Oregon and in the northern Sierra foothills. They have now been split into five separate species. But you’d have to analyze their DNA to tell the difference. The reason for this extraordinary success and wide distribution is simple. They are very small only five inches including the long tail at max. This coupled with those small legs enables then to enter earthworm and termite holes. Here they find plenty of food - small mites, springtails, baby spiders, whatever. Many different ecosystems meet these basic requirements.

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And unlike other amphibians this salamander has severed all ties to water. It mates underground in moist environments and the fertilized eggs hatch directly into miniature salamanders. No need for ponds, lakes or streams. During the dry months it lowers its metabolic rate, finds a moist area and just waits for the next rain.

Those of us lucky enough to have a patch of yard in cities or suburbs can readily find these little delights in leaf litter. Native wildlife, we’ll take what we can get.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist living in Santa Rosa.