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