In the Fullness of Time

This blog will focus on my fall sabbatical, and the ecology, evolution, and conservation of endangered and rare species in the Death Valley / Owens Valley area of California. Two taxa that I am particularly interested in are the Inyo Mountain salamander, and desert pupfish in the genus Cyprinodon. I plan on exploring not only the science of these species (and others), but also their beauty.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hold Steady

Hold steady - against the last three million years, the folding and faulting of desert ranges, the subsidence of valleys, the drainage reversals, the ebb and flow of ice and rain, the lava and ash, the Pliocene and Pleistocene. Ignore the vanished mastodons and mammoths, cave bears and dire wolves, camels and sloths. Persevere against the great drought of the Hypsithermal, the failing springs and rivers, the drying and dying plants. Hold steady against the hunters and gatherers, and later, the plow and the pump, the bulldozer and drainage ditch. Endure, too, the crayfish and bass, the sunfish and bullfrog, the cow and burro, the cattail, tamarisk, and common reed. Hold steady against the collectors and farmers, the developers, those who would dismiss you, and those who will never care. Persist against the flash floods and shuddering earth, the chytrid fungus and parasitic worm and viral plague. Hold steady in spite of your isolation, the loneliness of lost lineages, the last few of your kind hiding in rough canyons and tiny springs. And in the coming years, hold steady against our great and growing thirst. But mostly, now and forever, hold steady against our ignorance, what we have not learned, or refuse to know.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Oregon Slender Salamanders

The Oregon slender salamander is considered to be an “old growth associate,” and I found my first two on the Andrews below massive Douglas firs. One salamander was beneath a small chunk of decaying wood, while the other was buried deep within a rotten log. Both locations were surrounded by thick carpets of moss, with understory vegetation that included Oregon grape (not a true grape) and huckleberry, but I haven’t found enough individuals to develop any sort of search image.  Both salamanders were small – about 1 1/3 inches from the tip of the snout to the vent – and they had characteristic black bellies dotted with large white flecks, and coiled into tight circles when I disturbed them. Their dorsal surfaces were brick-red, with small, whitish-silver splotches along their sides.  These discoveries jolted me with tiny bursts of adrenalin, as much as when I discovered my first Harris’s Sparrow nests during my dissertation research in the Canadian arctic. But after a few minutes of intense excitement, I was left with a quiet joy; it simply was a pleasure to see the creature that drew me to the Andrews.
Oregon slender salamander
I could tell that the two salamanders belonged to the genus Batrachoseps because they had only four toes on each hind foot, and relatively small limbs. The scientific papers that I’ve read describe the skeletal and genetic characters that unite them more generally with other members of the genus, and most closely to the Inyo Mountains and Kern Plateau slender salamanders. And yet the Oregon slender salamander’s habitat is so dramatically different from that of the Inyo Mountains species that I cannot quite reconcile what the data indicate about their relationship with what my senses tell me about where they live. There is too much dissonance between the soggy, fecund expanse of old growth forest on the Andrews, and the tiny tracks of riparian habitat that thread through the high desert country of the Inyo Mountains. It's not only the type of habitat that differs so much between the species - it's also the amount. One paper estimated that the occupied habitat in the Inyo Mountains might not total more than 50 acres, while most of the 16,000 acres of the Andrews could support Oregon slender salamanders – not to mention all of the other mature forest within their 150-mile north-south range.  Another possible difference: Inyo Mountains salamanders surely move deep into the soil or rock crevices, but their surface world is mostly unidimensional, while the Oregon slender salamander’ surface world occupies three dimensions – length and breadth, but also with a vertical component, the interior of rotting logs.
Oregon slender salamander
I place a tightly coiled salamander in the palm of my hand, bring it close to my face, and contemplate the dark pupil of its eye. I wonder what it perceives of me, from across the great gulf of the 300 million years or more that separate our lineages.  For a few moments the larger world of the Andrews vanishes – the white rush of Lookout Creek in the valley below, the fertile scent of the moist forest, the Douglas firs towering above. I try to conjure up another salamander in another place, the rich riparian smells of some tiny Inyo Mountains stream, sagebrush and rabbitbrush covering the sun-baked hillsides, the guttural croaks of ravens overhead, the eastern scarp of the High Sierra in the distance.  And I imagine the space that separates my spot in the Andrews from the Inyo Mountains – southeast for six hundred miles through the Oregon Cascades, past the Klamath Basin and Mount Shasta and into the High Sierra, and finally across the great trough of Owens Valley. All of that distance, all of that time, the histories of two species unspooling across the years and miles…
I return the salamander, gently, to its resting place, and start back down the trail, the forest alive to me once more.
Morning light in Andrews old growth

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Andrews Experimental Forest #2

Andrews Forest old growth canopy - after the rains
I have come to the Andrews Experimental Forest partly (and perhaps perversely) because I have been thinking about the Inyo Mountains slender salamander, Batrachoseps campi , which lives only in a scatter of isolated canyons in the mountains that grace its name – a desert range 11,000 feet high, lying in the rain shadow of the High Sierra. It is one of only two desert salamanders in the world. I recall trudging up a heat-blasted alluvial fan at the edge of the Owens Valley on an unusually hot September day, weaving through the creosote bushes and past barrel cacti, harsh light pouring from the sky, bitter heat radiating from the desert pavement, before working my sweaty way into a shaded canyon, to a patch of seep willow and a small waterfall  – and at the base of the falls, beneath a flat rock, finding a small, chocolate-brown salamander.  Even though I had read the technical papers, and knew that the species occurred in the canyon, there was something stunning and unexpected and achingly beautiful about its presence.  It just did not make sense that an animal so sensitive to desiccation could end up in such a place, and endure. Instead, salamanders should live in a land of rain, where there are damp mosses and ferns and great chunks of rotting wood, where it is cool, and where there is the shade of great trees and the swirl and clatter of rushing streams.   
Old growth understory
Lookout Creek drainage, McKenzie River Valley: this place feels as though it ought to make salamanders happy, and by living here for a short while, I hope to more fully grasp the haunting uniqueness of the Inyo Mountains slender salamander. One file in the Andrews database lists eight salamander species as occurring here, although I suspect that a thorough search might yield a few more. In any case, one of the documented species is the Oregon slender salamander, Batrachoseps wrighti; along with the Inyo Mountains slender salamander and the Kern Plateau slender salamander (Batrachoseps robustus), the three species form a single lineage, united by several unique skeletal traits and similarities in their mitochondrial DNA. It’s a puzzle to me that, although B. campi and B. robustus are isolated from one another by only thirty miles, while the ranges of B. campi and B. wrighti are separated by six hundred miles, the genetic differences among the species are roughly equal.    
The Andrews, then, has attracted me for two reasons - the way in which it contrasts with the Death Valley region, and the presence of a close relative of the Inyo Mountains slender salamander. It is a perfect place in which to study and contemplate old growth forests, of course, but by virtue of contrast, it also is a wonderful environment in which to reflect on what I witnessed in the desert.  I desire contradiction and diversity.... This morning, before I went walking in the rain, one Andrews staff member apologized for the weather, and said that it was too bad that I’d “hit a bad week.”  No worries; I want dampness, fog, and rain – just not so much that it soaks through my rain gear, and makes me whine.  
Rough-skinned newt, Andrews Experimental Forest

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Andrews Forest #1

Weather report for the Andrews Experimental Forest, western slope of the Oregon Cascades, November 7th through 9th: mist, fog, drizzle, sprinkles, light showers, steady rain, downpours, wet snow at the higher elevations, temperatures in the 30s. The old-growth forest, mostly a mix of Douglas-fir, western red cedar, and western hemlock, stands shrouded in mist, wreathed in thick tendrils of gray fog, like a scene from some sixteenth-century Chinese landscape painting. The crowns of the trees, some more than 25 stories high, drift in and out of the clouds, and the views up valley are restricted and intimate.  Even when the skies are not spitting rain, the trees are - an almost constant shower drifting down from the foliage, which on some of the largest trees doesn’t begin until 150 feet off the ground.  The streams fill with runoff, and everywhere there is the sound of rushing water.
I clothe myself in layers of polypropylene, finish with rubber boots, rain pants and jacket, then throw a waterproof cover over my pack.  I walk up the Lookout Creek trail through magnificent old growth forest, flipping rocks (a few), lifting slabs of bark (many), rolling small sections of logs (many), poking through moss-covered debris in my search for salamanders. At the start of my hike the rain is light but steady - typical late-autumn weather for the Andrews, which normally receives more precipitation in November (14 inches on average) than during any other month of the year. And after two months of the desert’s heat and aridity, I welcome the moist coolness, the fresh, conifer-laden scent that comes with each breath. I welcome, too, the moss-covered logs, the huge trees, the yellow drift of bigleaf maple leaves, the touch of rain on my face, the calls of the forest birds slipping through the dark, dripping understory  – Brown Creepers, Varied Thrushes, Winter Wrens. Still, I feel a bit like an awkward tourist here; the ambience of this landscape offers such a contrast to where I was working just a few days ago – Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, in the transition zone between the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. There, the skies rained light instead of water, early November temperatures pushed ninety instead of forty, and the views extended for fifty miles through glorious, unobstructed, arid space.  Mosses and ferns were scarce and senescent refugees, hiding out in small, north-facing niches, a giant leather-leaf ash might hit thirty feet, and no self-respecting Winter Wren would ever grace Ash Meadow’s mesquite thickets.  If “variety is the spice of life,” then my days at the Andrews are flavored with habanero peppers….
Lookout Creek
The rain builds as I work uphill, transitioning from “light but steady” to “continuous and heavy.” Rivulets course down deadfall logs, spill off broken branches, track steep sections of the trail. The understory is a soggy carpet of Oregon grape, sword fern, mosses, and foam flower, the ground littered with twigs and bits of moss and lichen that have fallen with the rain. Fungal fruiting bodies are everywhere, pushing up through the thick duff, drawn into light by the third day of this storm. I give up on my salamander project and climb steadily, in hopes of staying warm, not yet ready to retreat.  My breath steams, my nose is another runnel. Slowly, inexorably, my old rain jacket begins to leak at the seams, and I can feel the damp spreading across my shoulders and down my arms.  It is great weather for ducks and salamanders, if not for humans, and when I see the first slushy snow on the trail, I turn toward the car. Enough; I am not interested in hypothermia. Today the salamanders can wait, much as they always have.
Old growth forest, Lookout Creek Trail

Friday, November 5, 2010

Ash Meadows

For twelve days I volunteered at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which is situated southeast of Death Valley National Park, in the transition zone between the Mojave, Sonoran, and Great Basin deserts.  Although Ash Meadows is about the same size as Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge plus the adjacent Tonawanda and Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Areas, it supports 25 endemic taxa, including four fish, eight plants, and 13 invertebrates. Twelve of these are listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Remarkably, the number of endemic and listed species at Ash Meadows exceeds those of any other local area in the United States.  Another comparison: Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, at 3,370,000 acres, which is about 146 times as large as the nearby Ash Meadows refuge. Death Valley also has a much greater range of habitat types – yet its total of endemic species is “only” about 34. Although the boundaries of  Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge do not include the spectacular landscapes that characterize Death Valley, the refuge’s biodiversity makes it an equally beautiful place.  
Ash Meadows from the east; green areas in middle ground mark springs.
Death Valley NP (Black Range) in distance.

Large (!) endemic Warm Springs pupfish

Water bug with unlucky Warm Springs pupfish prey

The high degree of endemism at Ash Meadows  is due primarily to its archipelago of springs and wet alkali meadows, many of which are isolated from one another, and from other similar systems in the region. All of the endemic (and listed) species are either aquatic organisms, or dependent upon relatively wet, localized terrestrial habitats. Because most of the endemic organisms occur in or near only a few springs, any damage to the springs can lead to catastrophic population declines. Three endemic organisms went extinct during the twentieth century – the Ash Meadows montane vole, the Ash Meadows killifish, and the Longstreet Spring snail – while many others remain vulnerable to exotic species, invasive plants, and decreasing spring flows. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the refuge was established, a company began growing water-intensive alfalfa and cotton at Ash Meadows, even though the area’s water resources and alkaline soils could not support long-term agricultural development. Many springs in the area were devastated, along with their populations of fish and invertebrates. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1984, and since then the Fish and Wildlife Service has done an excellent job of protecting and restoring many of the springs. Much work remains to be done, though, and future, large-scale groundwater withdrawals (viva Las Vegas) could severely impact the hydrology and endemic species of Ash Meadows.
King's Pool, 1969. Image courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service.

King's Pool restored, 2010

The other day, I walked across the desert from Devil’s Hole, the only home of the Devil’s Hole pupfish and an endemic riffle beetle, to School Spring, one of several low-volume springs that support the endemic Warm Springs pupfish and Warm Springs naucorid (an aquatic insect).  The half-mile walk took me only 15 minutes, and yet for those fish and flightless insects, Devil’s Hole and School Spring might as well have been separated by a continent. The species are that isolated, and they have been so for at least ten thousand years. There is a beauty in their isolation and tenacious persistence, but also an ineffable sadness. For the pupfish and insects, the desert is an immense and inhospitable barrier, and they are irrevocably committed to their tiny habitat islands.  Despite their proximity to one another, they are just about as alone as any creatures can get in this world. And so, as I wove through the cacti and creosote scrub, and thought about the perilous existence of so many species at Ash Meadows, the desert was for me both metaphor, and habitat. 
Ash Meadows desert at sunset; appropriately named
Last Chance Range to left.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Snipe Hunt - for Salamanders

When I visited the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, Dr. David Wake mentioned an unconfirmed salamander report from Sheep Spring in the Avawatz Mountains, just south of Death Valley.  A week ago, I hiked to the site with Patrick Emblidge, a Brockport Environmental Science alumnus who works as a biological technician for the US Geological Survey out of Henderson, Nevada. We left camp at 5:00 a.m., and so our five mile walk up a broad alluvial fan to Sheep Spring was leavened by a brilliant, waxing moon. It was a lovely time to hike – cool and perfectly still, with the viscid scent of creosote bush in the air, and the Panamint Mountains standing clear to the north, more than 50 miles away. We reached Sheep Spring before sunrise, and found a small stream of water flowing for about 150 meters through thick stands of mesquite, tamarisk, common reed, and willow. Although there was water enough for slender salamanders, the site didn’t feel right to me - the soil was mostly coarse granitic debris, the water was warm (about 70°F), and there was too much dense vegetation.  We found no salamanders at the spring, and I doubt that there are any there. I’d like to think that I’ve developed a decent search image for slender salamanders, and that I’d be able to find them if they were present, but it’s far easier to demonstrate that a species is present than to prove that it is not there.
There are other sites where Inyo Mountains slender salamanders are rumored to occur, and entire ranges that have not been thoroughly searched. And so, as I walked back down to the car, I wasn’t disappointed by our failure to find salamanders at Sheep Spring. I’d had a beautiful walk, which led me to imagine wandering the arid canyons of the Argus, Inyo, and White Mountains. It would take years to search all the possible habitat, those springs hidden far from the nearest washed out, tire-shredding four-wheel drive track. In those lost and distant desert ranges, there must be undiscovered populations that have hung on for thousands or even millions of years, surviving glacial advances and retreats, as far as they can get from the concerns of humans, patiently unrolling the long and beautiful skein of time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The View from Telescope Peak

In late September I visited Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America at 272 feet below sea level. The hypersaline waters support the tiny Badwater snail, which is endemic to springs in the area. A look west from the snail’s home, past the salt-rimmed pools and across a huge, yawning space, took in the main crest of the Panamint Mountains and Telescope Peak, rising 11,300 feet above Badwater. It was a hot morning, and as I watched the snails retreat into the shade of salt crust and pickleweed, I imagined the cooler world of the Panamints, and searching for a plant restricted to the highest 500 feet of Telescope Peak – a subspecies of bedstraw, Galium hypotrichium tomentellum, whose entire population may number less than a thousand individuals.
Badwater; Telescope Peak in the Distance

Other tasks, and vagaries of the weather, forced me to postpone hiking up Telescope Peak, and it wasn’t until October 23rd that I set off on the 14-mile hike. I wanted to see sunrise from the summit, and so I left the trailhead at 3:20 a.m., climbing through scattered pinyon pine to the long, sagebrush-covered ridge leading toward the peak. It was a cold and beautiful morning – the full moon high in the western sky, broken clouds scudding overhead, the snow-covered mountain gleaming in the distance.  I switched off my headlamp and walked with the moon, through a sea of sagebrush laved by silvered light, before climbing into bristlecone pines and crusted snow. I reached the summit at dawn. Below, clouds lay over Death Valley and Panamint Valley like blankets of thick, damp gauze; only the main crest of the Panamints, and the shadows of the Argus, Inyo, and White Mountains, far to the west, rose above the mists. Badwater was invisible, although I could recall the view from decades before, when Melissa and I had made the hike on a much warmer October day, and the white salt flats lay shining in the sun.  I pulled on several extra layers of clothes and huddled in the lee of some rocks, trying to escape from a bitter north wind. For a half hour or so, I sat and thought about pupfish, toads, and salamanders – the lost and lonely populations of the region, the trajectories of their histories, the imperative of water. Much of their beautiful country lay hidden beneath the clouds, as obscured as are the species’ futures.  In place of certainty we only have their tenuous present, and our hope, rising through the clouds like those distant desert mountains.
Sunrise from Telescope Peak

When I began to shiver, and sunrise broke over the clouds, I took up my pack and started down from Telescope Peak, descending into the sweetness of the gathering day.

Bristlecone Pines, Telescope Peak