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.

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

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