The Search for the Elusive Four-toed Salamander | CAI

The Search for the Elusive Four-toed Salamander

Aug 25, 2020

We share this planet with multiple uncounted millions of species. If we consider just those visible, there are still millions; and even if we limit our focus to just those with backbones—fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians—we will have to deal with many thousands, and new species are still being discovered in the frontiers of the rain forest canopy and the ocean’s depths.  

The vast majority of all these species we will never encounter.  We content ourselves with gray squirrels, robins, herring gulls, the occasional fox, the increasing numbers of gray seals, perhaps a whale, but there is so much more out there.  It’s just that most wildlife actively avoids our attention. 

An extreme example of this was brought to my attention a few months ago, when I accompanied my friend Bob Cook, a retired Cape Cod National Seashore biologist, on an outing.  We were stomping through a fresh water marsh in Wellfleet.  Our quest: The Four-toed Salamander. You could probably not find a more reclusive species anywhere.  These animals are devoted to a microhabitat of sphagnum moss.  Not only that, but they prefer moss “pillows”- that is clumps of moss that overhang the water.  Why?  Females lay their eggs in these clumps, and when the eggs hatch the young slide down into the water, where they live for the next month or two, equipped with gills. 

So we lurched through freshwater channels, amidst willows and grey birches, alders and red maples, passing cattails, sedges, and rushes, until we located a likely looking clump of sphagnum, one with a vertical profile above the water.  When we probed such clumps we would occasionally be rewarded with the sight of a Four-toed Salamander and sometimes a clump of tiny white eggs. 

A Four-toed Salamander is not exactly a thing of beauty: barely four inches long, nondescript reddish-brown, with an odd tail that is constricted at the base. Its prettiest feature is a bright enamel-white belly with black speckles. It does not appreciate being seen, and wiggles away at the first opportunity.

This species certainly has a spotty distribution, as it depends on sphagnum moss growing in fresh water marshes, vernal ponds and bogs.  But is it rare?  Biologists think perhaps not, but the fact that these little reddish-brown salamanders are so difficult to find makes this less certain.  The statistical probability of finding one is slim.  All we can do is protect their habitats and hope for the best.

Another species that would avoid our attention if possible but is far more visible is the Eastern Box Turtle. These beautiful turtles, with their high domed shells of orange yellow and black, roam our woodlands, meadows, and wetland margins.  They are land creatures but will sometimes be found in shallow water during hot weather. Box turtles are generalists compared to the Four-Toed Salamander, so they are not so limited in their habitat requirements.  But this is also their downfall: as they roam about they are vulnerable, most especially to the automobile.  They were here long before roads existed and cannot be expected to adapt to them.  As a turtle hears or feels a car approaching it most likely just pulls into its shell.  The result is usually death.

We are more frequently being confronted with the fact that we are sharing a planet with species that have no room to adapt, no strategies to cope with the threats of the human-shaped world, the Anthropocene, be it right whales or box turtles or piping plovers. 

Are we not more human when we strive to help them?