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.