Slender Salamanders

California Slender Salamanders

As I was doing a little yardwork – yes, I’m still at it- I moved a big pile of
leaves and uncovered the most common salamander, actually I dare say
the most common amphibian, in our region – the California slender
salamander. It is also known as the worm salamander and indeed it is thin
with teeny, tiny legs.

Alarmed, its natural response was to thrash back-and-forth rapidly and then
go perfectly still. I guess that strategy works most of the time. The color is
rather cryptic mostly brown with a broad dark maroon stripe running right
down the back. And when it abruptly stopped against the dirt, it was
challenging to see.

But If a predator does attack, the tail can be sacrificed and re-grown with
little problem. One researcher watched a slender salamander twist its tail
into a knot around a garter snakes head. It then secreted a substance that
glued the snake’s jaws shut for 48 hours. So don’t mess around with Slim!
California slender salamanders were originally considered one species
thriving in the Coast Ranges from Monterey to Oregon and in the northern
Sierra foothills. They have now been split into five separate species. But
you’d have to analyze their DNA to tell the difference. The reason for this
extraordinary success and wide distribution is simple. They are very small
only 5 inches including the long tail at max. This coupled with those small
legs enables then to enter earthworm and termite holes. Here they find
plenty of food – small mites, springtails, baby spiders, whatever. Many
different ecosystems meet these basic requirments.

And unlike other amphibians this salamander has severed all ties to water.
It mates underground in moist environments and the fertilized eggs hatch
directly into miniature salamanders. No need for ponds, lakes or streams.
During the dry months it lowers its metabolic rate, finds a moist area and
just waits for the next rain.

Those of us lucky enough to have a patch of yard in cities or suburbs can
readily find these little delights in leaf litter. Native wildlife, we’ll take what
we can get.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Porcupines

Michael Ellis has this Perspective on a mammal with one of the most effective defenses in the animal kingdom.

A friend asked me if porcupines live in the Bay Area. The short answer is yes. But they are very rare, plus they are mostly nocturnal. I have seen them a few times and only in New Mexico and Canada not here. Perched up in tree branches, they resemble stationary balls of thorns or even large bird nests so they are often overlooked.

For most of its existence, South America was an island continent disconnected from North America. But 2.8 million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama formed and connected North and South America. One of the greatest biogeographical events then took place — a massive exchange of mammals between the two continents. Camels, cats, bears, canids all flowed to South America. And north came some marsupials, primates and giant ground sloths. When the evolutionary dust settled South America ended up with jaguars and llamas and we got opossums and porcupines.

The porcupine (literally “spiny pig”) are not pigs but they are covered with spines. They’re the third heaviest rodent in the world. They range far north into Canada, way south to Mexico and all over the northeastern U.S. In California they are scattered throughout many regions, including the Bay Area, but are absent from the Central Valley, the Mojave and Coloradan deserts and southern coastal areas. While these vegetarians are well known for eating the bark of trees in the winter, during the warmer months almost any plant matter will suffice. Hence their wide distribution, but nowhere are they common.

These placid animals mostly have nothing to fear. Their first line of defense — quills— keep all but the most determined predators at bay. Cougars, bobcats, coyotes and especially fishers (a weasel relative) manage to take a few. But 30,000 heavily barbed quills and a very potent stench (described as rank human body odor) enable porcupines to plod along, only interested in finding the next thing to munch on. I would love to see another one, but only at a distance.

Christmas Carols

There are many reasons to celebrate in this dark time of the year. We gather with family and friends to exchange gifts and well wishes. We donate to the needy. We rejoice in the brightness of the Christmas tree, the festive lights and the Yule log.

But my favorite aspect of this season is the communal singing. There is such a warm, fuzzy feeling when you join together with other people in common voice. We often do this at sporting events, theater and other performances where we clap, jeer or just plain yell, and it feels mighty fine.

America is a very diverse nation, an assemblage of people and cultures from all over the world. We often have little in common, but there is one fairly narrow area in which many of us overlap, and that is the singing of Christmas carols. The words of these simple songs, at least the first verse, are known to most of us.

Carols are the most secular of all religious music. In Latin, “chora rula” meant one who accompanies a chorus on a reed instrument, and a related word meant circle dance. So the word “carol” originally meant a round dance and the song accompanying it. The leader sang the verses while the dancers sang the recurring refrain or chorus.

The church originally looked down on this singing as being too pagan and banned it.

But legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi introduced the songs into the church in the 13th century. This was the first time carols, and not hymns, were sung at a church service.

They rapidly gained popularity and eventually the dancing fell away, and only the songs were left.

During the Victorian era, the writing and singing of Christmas carols reached a zenith. The common denominator then and today is that the singing of carols thoroughly imbue us with a spirit of joy and play. We love to sing. And this is the only time of year when our collective voices gain in timbre, volume and spirit.

Pileated Woodpeckers

In 1979 Walter Lantz was given a special Academy Award “for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world” especially via his Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Lantz shared with the audience that on his honeymoon with Gracie Stafford in 1941, a woodpecker kept pounding on the roof of their cabin. The bird was relentlessly drilling little holes and stuffing acorns in them.

Gracie suggested using that aural inspiration as a cartoon character, and although Lantz was skeptical he went ahead with her suggestion. The rest, as they say, is history.

However the bird that actually inspired Lantz’ drawing of Woody was most certainly NOT an acorn woodpecker, which was clearly the species keeping the newly married couple amused.

Woody is most likely a Pileated woodpecker or at least a cartoonist version of one. There is only one woodpecker that bears that prominent crest or pileus where the word pileated comes from. That is assuming that the ivory-billed woodpecker is indeed extinct. Not seen since the 1940s, ornithologists got real excited several years ago with reports of one in Arkansas; this sighting proved unfounded. A pileus was a felt conical hat worn by ancient Greeks. Both Woody and the pileated have a prominent red crests whereas the acorn woodpecker does not.

Pileateds are the biggest woodpeckers in North America and make hefty rectangular shaped cavities in large trees. Both the male and female drum very loudly on hollow trees during breeding season. They prefer old growth forests or secondary growth as long as there are some standing large trees. Annadel State Park in Sonoma, Five Brooks Pond in west Marin and the Santa Cruz Mountains are excellent places to see these magnificent birds which range across all of North America.

Strawberries

I am blessed to visit many parts of this planet and often when I sit down for a meal, I am thankful in a weird way for Christopher Columbus. Who? Well, it would have happened sooner or later, but when this Italian captain and adventurer “discovered” America he ushered in one of the most profound changes in the worldwide environment since that meteor impact ended the rein of the dinosaurs. This globalization resulted in various food crops streaming from one part of the world to another in dizzying rapidity.

Recently in Tanzania I had a dessert that included strawberries. Strawberries! Various species grow wild in many part of the Northern and Southern Hemisphere but the cultivated one has a fascinating history. The strawberry that grows wild in eastern North America is Fragaria virginiana. California has a wild strawberry growing along the coast called the beach strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis. This same plant also thrives in Chile but nowhere in-between. There is a bit of a mystery as to how this occurs but it does.

The French explorer, Cartier, imported the eastern variety from Quebec into France in 1534. It grew well in Brittany and was a favorite fruit of the kings. In 1712 a French spy surreptitiously collected five of the chiloensis strawberry plants at a Spanish military outpost in Chile. He brought them home where they were planted with the other introduced variety. The plants hybridized and the resulting plant produced a fruit that was large and delicious. Presto! The garden strawberry was born.

Soon this wondrous plant spread throughout the world and is grown nearly everywhere successfully including, apparently, East Africa. Yummy.