The Perilous Journey of the Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander

SC Long-toed Salamander

This story by Mike Westphal was originally published in the 1996 Fall issue of Tideline, the newsletter of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The pond had been getting smaller and smaller, but she continues to grow larger.  The cool wet days of spring were gone and the sun was hot during the day.  As the weather changed, so had she.  The three feathery gills at either side of her head and gradually shrunk until they were nothing more than nubs and she made regular trips to the surface to gulp air into her newly formed lungs.  The shape of her body had changed.  She was no longer a fat torpedo adapted for stalking tree frog tadpoles and water insects; now her round head was set away from her forelegs by a slender neck, her tail had lost its fin, and her toes had become long and tapering.  When the pond disappeared altogether, she put her toes to work and crawled into a moist cavity in the old pond bottom away from the summer air that felt so dry on her moist skin. 

Then one day something was different. The air was no longer dry, but felt heavy and charged with moisture. Soon she felt a drumming on the soil above her, first light, then hard. A trickle of water came down from above. The sunlight at the entrance to her hideaway was too bright for her, but as the light faded she crawled to the surface. The summer storm was in full blow, and the rain was dissolving into mud the dirt clods piled here and there by squirrels and gophers. With vigorous movements she began to crawl away from the place where she had started life as a jelly-encased egg three months before. Her skin still looked mostly mottled and greenish but was beginning to darken and would soon change into the luster of a black jellybean; dabs of bright yellow were beginning to faintly appear along the top of her back and tail.

Her toes and slender body were well suited for pushing through the dry vegetation. Abruptly the vegetation gave way to bare ground where the rain was collecting in long thin puddles. She hesitated. There came a noise and a vibration, and then for a moment it seemed like the sun was shining again; something huge rumbled over her, causing mud to fly everywhere. She hunkered down, and then the truck was gone. After a moment she started walking again. She crossed a new rut in the ground quickly filling with water. She did not stop to look at another of her kind lying limp and flattened in the bottom of the rut.

Something furry and snuffling came bumbling up to her. Instinctively she raised her tail from the ground and flicked the tip in a sinuous motion. Droplets of white poison appeared on her skin. The baby raccoon nipped the last third of her tail right off then ran away snorting in discomfort. Overturned by the raccoon’s snap, she rolled onto her belly again and set off. Once again vegetation surrounded her. She continued on until she felt the light changing. She began to seek shelter from the impending reappearance of the sun; a hole presented itself in front of her, and she crawled into its dark safety.

She didn’t know it, but she was in the right place. She had crossed into the sanctuary of Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge, set aside for her protection by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and, for now, she and other Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders like her who had found refuge there were safe.

The Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, Ambystoma macrodactylum croceum, was included on the first Federal endangered species list published on March 11, 1967, along with such animal luminaires as the bald eagle and the California Condor. The salamander had only been discovered 13 years before near Aptos in the sleep hills of southern Santa Cruz County. At the time of its listing, only two localities, both at risk, were known. Valencia Lagoon and Ellicott Pond were threatened by road widening and a proposed mobile home park, respectively. The California Department of Fish and Game, responding to requests from scientists and 

conservationists, attempted to protect the Valencia population by fencing off a small portion of the wetland and purchasing some upland habitat. Ellicott Pond also was purchased and set aside as a preserve jointly administered by California Department of Fish and Game and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service bought additional lands adjacent to the pond, and in 1975 Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge was established. 

Why dedicate a refuge to a salamander? The long-toed salamander of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties is a relict species that exists in isolated populations probably left over from a time when long-toed salamanders were widespread on the West Coast. Their closest relatives are four other subspecies of long-toed salamander that occupy adjacent ranges across the temperate northwestern corner of the continent. Due to their isolation, Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders have developed slightly different physical and behavioral attributes from their northern cousins, and have become a unique variety. This, their rarity, and the strong possibility that human activities would eliminate them, made this subspecies a priority for protection.

What threatens long-toed salamanders? Chief among the problems facing salamander survival is habitat loss from agriculture and residential development. Once a wilderness of rolling oak-covered hills, small grasslands, willow-choked sloughs and chaparral, the countryside around the border of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties has been largely converted to berry, cut flower, and vegetable production and is now experiencing the first wave of suburban growth. Many sites where Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders lived at one time probably disappeared without anyone ever knowing they were there.

 Habitat loss affects salamander populations in complex ways. Even if breeding ponds are preserved, houses or crops on the surrounding land reduce the number of sites where salamanders estivate during the summer. Controlling the small mammals that create burrows for salamanders may also degrade the upland habitat. Pesticides and herbicides may kill larvae and adults, or may destroy their prey base of aquatic or terrestrial insects.

Roads are formidable barriers to long-toed salamanders. Every year salamanders die on busy roads that pass between their estivation sites and their breeding ponds. If salamanders are washed into storm drains they might end up miles away from their home. Urban predators are also a potential problem; as humans encroach on salamander habitat, the numbers of raccoons, skunks, and house cats, all of which may harass or kill salamanders, increase. Other animals for which long-toed salamanders are an important food source, such as wading birds, waterfowl, and snakes, are usually not considered to be threats.

 Ellicott S. UnitSaltwater intrusion is another potential threat. Ground water pumping has depleted the aquifer beneath many long-toed salamander breeding sites; these may become more saline, and may ultimately become too salty for long-toed salamanders to successfully reproduce. This is an excellent example of how human practices miles from salamander habitat may impact a population.Loss of habitat is just one of the threats to long-toed salamanders. The actual collection of salamanders adds to the impacts. At one time these salamanders were used as bait for bass fishermen. This of course is now illegal: anyone who captures or harms a Santa Cruz long-toed salamander risks a fine or jail term.

Ironically, and sadly, taking of salamanders by scientists may pose a potential threat to long-toed salamanders. Some researchers do not acknowledge the need to obtain and strictly abide by valid permits for studying or collecting endangered animals, believing that the taking of a few individuals does not hurt the population as a whole. Others are simply unaware of permitting requirements. To some scientists the temptation to handle or collect the rare and fascinating long-toed salamander may prove too strong. Yet another threat is posed by researchers conducting population studies of the salamander. Such studies by definition subject a significant portion of population of salamanders to study. If a study “requires” trapping or marking the salamanders and if the researchers do not exercise extraordinary care in conducting their study, salamanders may die or be prevented from breeding, and the entire population may be imperiled. In the three decades since the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander was listed several projects have been ordered to cease for fear that the salamanders were at risk. Every proposed study should be carefully developed to eliminate risks to the population. 

How do we protect salamanders from these human caused disturbances? Protecting the habitat is the most natural and cost effective method. At this time the only dedicated public land where successful Santa Cruz long-toed salamander reproduction has been recently documented is at Ellicott Slough.

Most of Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge was acquired between 1975 and 1978. 

Presently it covers 133 acres of rolling primordial sand dunes and valley bottom and contains a variety of habitats, including willow thickets, grassland, and chaparral, as well as some stands of nonnative eucalyptus trees. The Service acquired 6.9 acres in 1994. An additional five acres have been protected under an easement.

At present the only breeding pond at Ellicott is on a California State Fish and Game Ecological Reserve adjacent to the refuge. Since temporary ponds by nature often fill with silt and disappear, and because single breeding populations are expected to occasionally go extinct from natural causes, having more than one breeding pond within dispersal range of the Ellicott population would probably increase the likelihood of the salamander surviving at the refuge.

For these reasons (and to guard against the event that some catastrophic event such as a diesel spill from a nearby railroad could decimate the breeding pond without warning) the Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to establish another breeding pond on the refuge. In 1992, California Department of Fish and Game and the Service installed a pump at the existing breeding pond to keep the water level high enough for successful reproduction in years of less-than-sufficient rainfall. Refuge biologists and volunteers monitor the population to know how long to run the pump and to check if reproduction was successful.

Although the Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game are committed to saving the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, the job cannot be accomplished by these government agencies alone. Citizens who wish to help the long-toed salamander can educate themselves and others about ongoing development projects and then be ready to speak out for the salamander if necessary. Landowners might wish to consider donating land. Road projects and wetland development should be closely monitored to make sure they do not threaten salamanders.

By not driving roads near known long-toed salamander sites on rainy nights, we can reduce the numbers of salamanders killed by cars. To protect salamanders from unwary feet and other disturbances, both the preserve and the refuge at Ellicott are closed to the public. Some people like to visit pools and ponds around their homes and stock them with mosquito fish to keep mosquito numbers down; this should be avoided where long-toed salamanders may be present. (Mosquito fish may prey on eggs or compete with larvae.) Poisoning water sources to kill mosquitoes is a bad idea, too.

Fewer than a dozen breeding sites for Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders have been discovered, most of them in the coastal bowl of the Pajaro Valley. The long-term survival of the salamander will depend on how well these sites and any yet undiscovered are protected. For now, Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge is the best hope for the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander.

Ten years had come and gone since she had made her first journey from the pond. She was old by salamander standards, but might live 10 years more if she was very lucky. Her skin was black and glossy and her back and tail were marked with brilliant yellow, as if someone had splattered mustard on her. She was a full four inches long, twice the size she had been when she first emerged from the pond.

The past four years had not been so good. The winter rains had not been sufficient to fill the pond with water. None of the storms that had blown through had felt right to her, and she had remained in her burrow, waiting.

This year something felt different. It had rained heavily in October, and the ground was damp. Now it was the first week of December and the air was moving, coming from the south on a strong wind from the nearby ocean, warm and laden with moisture. All at once the rain came down, and her limbs stirred. With a few strides she was on the surface of the ground, crawling as fast as she could back towards the pond where her life had begun. She came across an earthworm wiggling through the grass; with a violent motion she grabbed it in her jaws and gulped it down. A few feet farther along, a beetle met the same fate.

She crossed the road again. This time nothing passed along it except the wind and rain. She crawled through a stand of willows, wiggling between the roots, and slipped like a shadow into the still water of Ellicott Pond. The males were already there, swimming powerfully with their tails, which were longer and more finlike than hers. Before she left the pond a male would court her with a ritual dance, rubbing her with his chin gland and leaving a mushroom shaped blob called a spermatophore on the pond bottom, which she would take into her vent to fertilize the eggs inside her body. When she laid her eggs-there would be 100 to 400 of them-they would be the biggest in the pond, bigger than those laid by the tiger salamanders already mating down the shore aways, even though those salamanders were twice her size. Because the pond dries up every year, fish cannot live there and the eggs are safe.

With luck, the eggs would hatch two or three weeks later into swimming larvae which would lurk in the pond until March, if the pond stayed filled that long. Then their toes would lengthen, their gills disappear, and they too would make the journey to the safety of Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge.

Mike Westphal is a volunteer at Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge and worked as a biologist at the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge during 1991 and 1992.