Election Section

Salamander World Behind a South-of-UC Apartment

By JOE EATON Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 04, 2004

Anyone who passed through Austin during the glory years of the Texan counterculture will remember the establishment called Armadillo World Headquarters. Well, there’s a spot in Berkeley that I’ve begun to think of as Salamander World Headquarters. (No, y ou can’t get Lone Star or Shiner Bock there.) It’s the courtyard of a nondescript south-of-Campus apartment complex that has some irresistible attraction for salamanders. A friend who lives there keeps finding them: mostly arboreal salamanders, although a slender salamander turned up a few weeks ago. 

The arboreal salamanders seem particularly out of place. These chunky dark-brown amphibians, as the name implies, favor trees, especially oaks, as habitats, and Salamander World Headquarters is as oak-free a s a parking lot. Arboreals hide out in cavities and crevices, sometimes 30 feet off the ground, and climb down at night to hunt their prey—small insects and arthropods—in the leaf litter below. Trees are where female arboreals lay their grape-like cluster s of eggs, and where both sexes wait out the dry season. When the first fall rains hit, dehydrated salamanders cling to tree trunks soaking up the life-giving moisture like sponges. 

The skins of these creatures are their respiratory organs. Their distant ancestors had lungs, but at some point hundreds of millions of years ago they dispensed with them. One theory has it that the primordial lungless salamanders lived in rushing mountain streams, where the buoyancy of air-filled lungs put them at risk of be ing swept away by the current. But there’s a rival explanation involving adaptations to life on land and the development of chameleon-like tongues for catching prey, and the jury is still out. 

Arboreal salamanders are odd beasts (lacking vocal cords, the y can produce a squeak by retracting their eyeballs and forcing air through their mouths), but not as odd as slenders. Slender salamanders—there are 20 species, all but one native to California—bear a disconcerting resemblance to worms. They have no neck s to speak of, and rudimentary legs. 

Slender salamanders are often found hiding under things: logs, boards, flowerpots. If you pick one up, it will curl up in a tight coil, then suddenly uncoil like a watchspring and fling itself out of your hand. In a pinch, they can shed their tails—always good for distracting a predator—and grow them back later; 50 to 80 percent in some populations were found to be regenerating their tails. As a final fallback, slenders exude a sticky skin secretion that can gum up a predator’s jaws. One garter snake that had attacked a slender salamander was out of commission for at least 48 hours afterward. 

Our local species is the California slender salamander, which occurs near the coast from the Rogue River in Oregon to San Benito County. Some of its relatives have extremely narrow ranges: the Gabilan Mountains, the Santa Lucia Mountains, the Inyo Mountains, the lower Kings River, the Channel Islands. Although they all look pretty much alike, the genetic profiles of the slender salamanders are distinct enough to suggest they’ve been evolving in isolation for millions of years. According to UC Berkeley herpetologist David Wake, some of the Coast Range species appear to have ridden microplates—loose bits of the Earth’s crust—as te ctonic forces propelled them north along the San Andreas Fault. 

Most of the time, neither arboreal nor slender salamanders are all that gregarious. In summer, though, large numbers of arboreals may aestivate together in some damp dark hollow. And female slender salamanders congregate at communal egg-laying sites. Why either species would gather under the steps of an apartment building in early spring is an open question. Maybe the place has really tasty bugs. But how would word of this get around among these sedentary creatures? 

I have come to suspect that the social lives of salamanders, like those of most creatures, are more complicated than we give them credit for. I’m fascinated, for example, by recent studies of the red-backed salamander, an easte rn species that forms monogamous pair bonds and appears to be capable of jealousy. When researchers at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette removed the male of a pair, let him spend some time with another female, then brought him home, his mate whaled the tar out of him. Those foreign pheromones clinging to his skin were the amphibian equivalent of lipstick traces. "It almost looks like the females are waiting at home with rolling pins when these poor unfaithful males come back," herpetologist Ethan P rosen says. 

And there may be more going on cognitively that you might think. Salamanders aren’t wired for brilliance: The brain of some species contains fewer neurons that that of a honeybee. But they’re smart enough to have a sense of number. Claudia Uller, also at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, found that her lab salamanders, given the choice between a tube containing two fruitflies and a tube with three, consistently went for the three-pack. They did about as well as adult monkeys or human infants at this task. (No, the babies were not offered fruitflies.) Quantities greater than three confused them, but that was also true of the babies and monkeys. 

I am not sure how Lafayette came to be the center of cutting-edge salamander research. I ca n see the attractions of the place; it’s a great town for music if you like fiddles and accordions, and (unlike Austin) for food as well. But the synergistic possibilities are limited. There are some things even the boldest Cajun cook would never try to etouffee. 

Photo by Pierre Fidenci›