Salamander Is Secretive and Seldom Seen Garden Inhabitant
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
The slender salamander is a master of subterfuge. This small amphibian is reportedly the most common salamander in Southern California and can be found during the rainy season throughout Malibu—often living almost underfoot—but it's rarely identified unless the viewer knows what they are looking at, because the slender salamander is easily mistaken for an earthworm.
A small salamander that lives up to the adjective "slender," this garden resident rarely grows to a length of more than four or five inches—most of that consisting of tail. It has short, almost vestigial limbs, and a body shape and texture that enable it to pass itself off as a worm, unless the observer takes a second look and notices a pair of beady eyes.
Slender salamanders do not have lungs. They breath through their skin. The local species reportedly lives entirely on land, rarely traveling more than a few yards in their entire lifetime. Unlike most salamander species, slender salamanders do not have an aquatic larval phase.
According to an article written by Elizabeth Jockuschi, Inigo Martinez-Solano, Robert Hansen and David Wake on morphological and molecular diversification of slender salamanders that was published in the journal Zootaxa earlier this year, "Slender salamanders of the genus Batrachoseps (Caudata: Plethodontidae: Batrachosepini) are the most diverse clade of salamanders in western North America.
Wake, who has conducted extensive research on the genus, has identified numerous species of California slender salamander since the 1970s, helping to bring the total number of identified species to 19, up from just two.
The paper indicates that Batrachoseps "is thought to be the sister taxon of the Neotropical salamander clade." The current theory suggests the California's slender salamanders arrived in their current range by riding the Pacific techtonic plate north over the course of millions of years.
According to the National Park Service, Malibu's slender salamander population appears to consist primarily of B. nigriventris, the black-bellied slender salamander, and B. pacificus, the Pacific slender salamander.
All members of the Batrachoseps family are only active during wet weather when temperatures are moderate. They retreat underground to estivate during much of the year, reviving during the first rains of autumn, although year-round irrigation may increase their period of activity.
In Malibu at this time of year, Batrachoseps can often be found under plant pots, stones, dead leaves or even in the cracks between garden paving materials like un-cemented brick.
Slender salamanders are thought to live on a diet of small insects and other invertebrates. They are believed to make use of earthworm tunnels, where their worm-like bodies can easily travel, although not much appears to actually be known about their life cycle.
Young slender salamanders hatch directly from eggs laid in damp places on land, unlike most salamanders, which transition through an aquatic larval stage. The young hatch from the egg directly into a tiny terrestrial salamander that looks like a miniature version of the adult.
Usually only found under rocks, logs, bark, leaf litter, and other surface debris, the slender salamander will roll itself into a tight coil and attempt to avoid detection by remaining completely still and pretending to be a worm. They can move surprisingly fast and can also drop, or detach, their tails, in an attempt to distract potential enemies.
The slender salamander is completely harmless to humans and acts as a beneficial bug hunter in the garden.
Malibuites can help this small, rarely seen backyard resident by limiting or eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides, by remembering to be careful when moving pots and by keeping an eye out for individuals that may wander accidentally into pools, fountains or houses.