Reptiles, Amphibians and Fish

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Slow-moving freshwater is crucial for amphibians—frogs, toads, newts and salamanders—to complete their dual lifestyle. Unshelled embryos are laid in gelatinous masses under or near water (or merely kept damp); the gilled larvae hatch and develop first as aquatic organisms. (Some amphibian species bypass this aqueous stage by various means.) Before long the larvae metamorphose, leaving the water and their gills behind to mature on terra firma.

Reptiles differ from amphibians in a number of ways, but are similarly poikilothermic (i.e., they cannot regulate body temperature and thus rely on ambient sources for heating and cooling) and generally egg-laying creatures that inhabit many of the same environs. "Herpetology" combines the study of reptiles and amphibians into one term.

Estuaries, being the bridge between spawning streams and the ocean, are essential to anadromous fishes: those that live part-time in the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn and die. Besides the anadromous salmon species, many other fish tolerant of brackish water—including sculpin, sandlance, and sole—reside in estuaries or move into them with the tide on feeding forays.

  • Red-legged Frog

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    Ranging west of the Cascades from southern British Columbia to northern California, Red-legged Frogs are abundant around slow-moving, densely vegetated bodies of freshwater. In spring the females lay large, gelatinous egg masses attached to submerged logs, reeds or other emergent plants; in about a month these eggs hatch into larvae (also known as tadpoles), which spend another eighty days underwater before metamorphosing into froglets.

  • Pacific Chorus Frog

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    Pacific Chorus Frogs are variable in appearance and eclectic in distribution. Some of them are Granny-Smith green, others are mottled tan and brown and black; all possess sticky toes and shrill voices and a knack for hacking it almost anywhere along the Pacific, from sea level to 10,000 feet, from alpine tarns and suburban ponds to the intermittent desert spring. Where there’s water in the West, you’re liable to find the chorus frog: chirping away, plump and clammy, clinging vivaciously to life.

  • Rough-skinned Newt

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    Probably the most familiar amphibian in the Pacific Northwest, Rough-skinned Newts are found west of the Cascades from Alaska to Santa Cruz. They are diurnal, live on land, grow to eight inches in length, and amble about with almost laughable torpidity. Brownish-black above and orange below, Rough-skinned Newts with their coppery eyes are not exactly awe-inspiring creatures to behold, but they command attention in a rather more serious way: their flesh is among the most noxious in the world.  

  • Northwestern Salamander

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    These common salamanders occur from southeast Alaska to Sonoma County, California, inhabiting well-watered places from sea level to timberline west of the Cascades. Growing to eight inches long, Northwestern Salamanders living at higher elevation are known to exhibit neoteny: the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood. For salamanders, this means breeding-age individuals sporting the frilled gills of aquatic larvae. Like amphibious Peter Pans, they simply refuse to grow up.

  • Ensatina

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    A denizen of dank, dark spaces on the forest floor, Ensatina belong to a curious family of salamanders that breathe through their skin, lacking lungs entirely. Therefore the entire amphibian's body serves as a respiratory apparatus—and because a damp interface is required for oxygen exchange, the Ensatina cannot tolerate its breathable skin drying out. These salamanders are found from British Columbia to Baja Mexico and have diverged into seven disparate subspecies; California's varied landscape is home to all of them.

  • Garter Snake

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    A slender, striped snake found across North America, Garter Snakes are exceedingly, if endemically, commonplace. It is the snake most likely to be seen near human habitation—two feet long, non-venomous, slithering among leaves in backyards or basking on sun-baked sidewalks in summer. 

  • Coho Salmon

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    Also known as silver salmon, these anadromous fish undergo marked physiological changes in their transition from freshwater to saltwater and back again. The Coho migration upriver to spawn—the “run”—has sustained humankind and habitat alike for millennia. The fish supply provender not only to those who would eat them directly; their carbon- and nitrogen-rich bodies, finning inland after years at sea, represent a bonanza of nutrients that, once liberated by decomposers, the forest itself thrives upon.