Sunday, April 22, 2018

Celebrate Earth Day in Your Own Yard

Celebrate Earth Day in your own yard

Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamander, Salinas, Gardening, integrated pest management
Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps gavilanensis) in Salinas, California

Ever since I began gardening in Salinas in 1993, I've come across a tiny, worm-like salamander sharing the yard with me. My first encounters, sadly, had to do with mistakenly cutting the poor creature in half with my trowel. Its tail twitched and writhed in rapid convulsions and startled me awake from my routine digging and weeding. It captured my entire attention. I've since learned that that display was one of the slender salamander's primary defense mechanisms.

While I watched its very long tail flop about on the soil, its body scurried away to hide and find a safe place to grow another one.

Working in my front yard recently, I lifted a brick and discovered a slender salamander. It laid perfectly still, its color not dissimilar to Salinas adobe soil. That was another defense mechanism.

Two days before, I'd assembled a terrarium in a fishbowl with dark green ground moss, dried bark-covered rose canes replete with bright green moss, and attractive rocks. I captured the salamander, carried him over to the terrarium and placed him inside. He (or she) immediately disappeared beneath a few rocks and into the moist soil.

This encounter set me on a path of discovery. I needed to know more about California slender salamanders.

In 2001, scientists (Jockusch, Yanev and Wake) did an extensive survey of these long, thin amphibians identifying differences great enough for them to determine several unique species inhabiting California. They include the Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps gavilanensis), the Santa Lucia Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps luciae), and the most widespread - California Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus).

Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamanders range begins in southern Santa Cruz County includes the Salinas Valley and San Benito County down to northern San Luis Obispo including the eastern side of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The Santa Lucia Mountains Slender Salamander's range includes the western side of the Santa Lucia Mountains out to the Pacific Ocean and down the coast to San Luis Obispo County. There are places where the two species share ranges. The California Slender Salamander inhabits most of northern California from Santa Cruz County north.

Members of the genus Batrachoceps have several distinguishing characteristics:
  • they breathe through their skin and through cells in their mouths and have no lungs
  • they are terrestrial and do not need water to mature in but need moisture to be active
  • they lay 10-19 eggs in clutches which hatch as live juveniles ready to live on their own
  • they eat insects, insect larvae, spiders, mites, small slugs, sowbugs
  • they are active when nights are warm and the ground is wet
  • they estivate which is similar to hibernate, but occurs during dry periods. However, if the ground is kept moist such as in Salinas gardens. They stay awake the entire year.
  • they have four toes on their front and back legs where most other salamanders have five
  • they use holes and underground passages made by worms or other animals 
  • they are eaten by moles, raccoons, skunks, and oppossums
  • they can live for 12 years.
Slender salamanders are not considered endangered but their habitat is challenged by use of pesticides on lawns and in gardens, by the shrinking size of home gardens, and by the increased amount of paved surfaces.

You can establish them in your garden by providing a few flat boards, bricks and smooth rocks lying on the soil throughout your garden.

In fact, every true garden should have a dark, moist corner with a few rotting logs on the surface to encourage some diversity of life.

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