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, October 12, 2010

Inyo Mountains Slender Salamander #2

I park my car and walk up another arid alluvial fan in the Inyo Mountains, climb for sixteen hundred feet through creosote bush scrub, over desert pavement, and up a boulder-strewn wash. Ninety minutes of dry and sweaty walking brings me into a narrow limestone slot; the sound of falling water drifts down canyon, past a cluster of seep willow.  This looks like slender salamander habitat, and I only have to flip two rocks before I find one – a large, chocolate-brown individual, with a beautiful constellation of silver-gray iridophores on its dorsal surface. I continue upstream for a half mile, climbing steeply through a series of small barrier falls, past maidenhair fern and flowering columbine, flipping rocks, and finding another salamander along the way. This is a good spot, the best I’ve found so far – and the only reason I know of it is because a biologist showed me an unpublished report by Derham Giuliani (1931-2010), an “old-time” naturalist who spent many years exploring the Inyo, White, and Sierra Nevada Mountains. Derham knew more about the natural history and distribution of Inyo Mountain slender salamanders than anyone, and also did a tremendous amount of field work on beetles, chipmunks, and ground squirrels of the region.  A memorial to him is at

Inyo Mountains Slender Salamander
I head downstream, and from where the tiny stream disappears into alluvium, I can look out across the arid, shadscale scrub of the Owens Valley, toward the eastern scarp of the High Sierra. In those mountains, only fourteen miles or so away, are tumbling streams, lakes cupped within glacial cirques, lush meadows – the types of habitats that would make salamanders happy. A few hours of hiking and driving would take me into the High Sierra, but for the Inyo Mountain slender salamanders living in this little canyon, tied as they are to this narrow thread of water – well, the Sierra might as well be a continent away. They have nowhere to go if this canyon ever dries, if the land falls too deeply into drought.

Owens Valley and High Sierra from the Inyo Mountains

Later in the day I stop at the Manzanar National Historic Site, where ten thousand Japanese-Americans were interned for over three years during World War II, in an American version of the concentration camp. There is a wonderful interpretive center at the site, along with replicas of a guard tower, barracks, and mess hall. As I wander around Manzanar, thinking about racism and fear and stupidity, I realize that I can see canyons in the Inyos where slender salamanders lived when the camp was active. And somehow this knowledge – that those patient creatures were living out their lives, and had endured, completely removed from the march of human folly – gives me some comfort.  Although I haven’t worked out all the reasons for feeling as I do, I know that the lives of salamanders offer us some solace, in the face or personal and more general grief. To understand the nature of this process is one of the reasons that I am here.
Manzanar Relocation Camp; Inyo Mountains in the Background

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