Friday, June 8, 2012

Little Purgatory's Secret Salamanders

Having traveled much and judged little, I find myself with many interesting friends.  T is a close friend from my Saudi Arabian alma mater who was often by my side when pushing the limits of legality and safety for the sake of incredible nature adventures.  The photo of us in snorkel gear below may not look like much, but it was taken our first month on campus; high fences with barbed-wire blocked all access to the beach, which was strewn with construction waste.  It was T who was willing to join me in creatively circumventing the "red zone" to discover the local sea creatures.

I suppose barbed wire means "no," but nobody told us we couldn't...
As risky adventurers are wont to do, T decided to take a spontaneous trip from Taiwan (where he lives now) back to his home country, specifically up to New England to visit... me!  He has never been to this region of the USA, so I knew I had to take him to some special places.  Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, Massachusetts seemed right.  It's a granite bedrock hillside that appears to have been split apart, forming a deep gash with rock walls 70 feet high in some places.  It may have formed when a geological fault stressed the rock to crack, which was later exploited and pushed apart by glacial action.  

I have been to Purgatory many times before with many people; I enjoy climbing the tallest rocks overlooking the chasm and conversing with my guests in the shady cover of adjacent pine and hickory canopies.  Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) and chipmunks can be seen running among the rocks, and wild wintergreen plants (Gaultheria sp.) growing on the outer perimeter of the chasm offer the achy hiker a tingly and mildly pain-relieving treat to chew on.  The area is excellent for spotting wildlife; some of the rarer of Massachusetts' 10 freshwater turtle species (6 of which are endangered) could be found here, as well as the Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), a beautiful temperate orchid, which blooms in late spring.

We were neither pushing our limits nor searching for creatures with scientific intensity.  Just enjoying ourselves and catching up in the kind of environment we have always preferred.  The entire chasm seeps a somber, ancient, instinctual feeling; even on the hottest of days, it is a cold shady grotto.  The huge boulders forbid too much sunlight from entering the chasm, and shadows lead the way around rocks so thickly covered by soft green moss that our modern mind must make an active decision not to curl up atop them for a nap.  Out the back of the chasm, a trail leads to a smaller outcropping of rocks called "Little Purgatory."  A brook bubbles over the rocks here, accumulating in pools too shallow and small for any fish.  Such a location is a haven for smaller aquatic creatures, and when T and I arrived we counted nearly a dozen frogs warming themselves in the sun.  A life of studying underwater creatures meant I could not resist a closer look.  Discovery came when a brown silhouette on the brown silty bottom materialized into a recognizable shape - a salamander!

I was immediately agog.  I had not seen a wild salamander before, but I remembered how badly I wanted to find these mystical creatures when I was a child; my true-to-life plastic salamander replicas were among my favorite toys.  How ironic that I'd forgotten all about them since becoming a fully-developed nature hunter...  Salamanders are from the amphibian order Caudata, with 600 species worldwide in 10 families.  There are 11 species known from Massachusetts, including 5 representatives of the Plethodontidae, a lungless group that gets all their oxygen by diffusion across their moist and thin amphibian skin!  Though I try not to interfere with wildlife out of respect, I am also a curious, experienced, and very gentle wildlife biologist.  I decided to catch the creature so I could share its story with you all.

Having decided to capture it, I realized I had neither the intuition about salamander behavior nor any collecting equipment.  It was a cold stream, and thus a cold-blooded creature submerged in it could not be too fast, right?  I decided to sacrifice my Red Sox hat to the cause, and go with the tried-and-true method of approaching slowly but smoothly (without stopping).  I got on my hands and knees on a tiny rock island in the pond, leaned over, and submerged my hat.  I brought it as close to the head of the motionless amphibian as I dared, then used my other hand from behind to gently urge the creature into my now motionless hat.  To my chagrin, it did not dart but rather slowly trundled forwards until...

Success!  I danced a jig on my tiny island while my hat dripped pond water and T fished out his camera.  T shot close-ups while I lifted the wet salamander into my hands, taking care to drip water on him occasionally.  Dark red spots dotted the skin we'd initially thought was a plain brown.  Careful as a card-house architect, I rolled the little dragon to expose his hidden underbelly, a blazing yellow with black stippling.  A minute after capture, we were recording him trundling off my hand back into some submerged debris.

Back at home, I identified the find as a Red-Spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), of the family Salamandridae.  Despite their diminutive size (5 inches max), this species lives 12-15 years in the wild!  Although the brown, aquatic adults live in tiny pools (especially ones like this devoid of fish and turtle predators), bright yellow juveniles (called "efts") spend the first 2-3 years of life boldly wandering the moist and leaf-littered forest floor for new pools to colonize.  Many salamander species migrate at some point in their life cycle; either to breed or to find new habitat.  Coupled with the fact that at least one of their life stages is spent in water, this leaves them highly vulnerable to human-caused mortality.  Cars squish adults or juveniles that migrate across roads, while pollution and acid rain render aquatic habitats uninhabitable.  Hence the threatened status of a third of our local species.  I always hope my stories do their part to foster your imaginations and tug on your heart-strings; I want you to fall in love with (and hopefully choose to protect) these creatures.  Thus, I've saved the best for last...

You see, the Red-Spotted Newt has a couple super-power abilities they rely on to survive that we "more developed" humans lack...  1) As to be expected from the bright coloration, they can secrete an unpalatable toxin that deters predators, and, perhaps more impressively, 2) they make informed decisions when migrating using a hybrid navigation system that couples data on the direction of polarized sunlight together with the orientation of magnetic iron particles embedded within their body!  If only we human hikers had this ability...  

Perhaps it was my friend T's Taiwanese chi that attracted these local water dragons to us.  Does everything happen for a reason?  Either way, it made our day - and fulfilled one of my long-forgotten childhood dreams.

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