Andrew Sabin’s business involves recycling precious metals used in specialized industrial processes. But his nickname is the Salamander Commander. Last night I met him, plus Frank Quevedo who heads the South Fork Natural History Museum, and a friend of Andy’s from California named Maurice, who’d brought a friend from Hawaii named Jim. Maurice and Jim had traveled to New York for a conference and strategy meeting on global turtle and tortoise conservation. But this night Andy would take us to four ponds in Bridgehampton looking for softer, less armored quarry.
In some years these ponds would have been frozen. Andy usually leads a nighttime salamander walk for families later in the month. But he moved the date up earlier because the warmth—we’ve had few freezes; it had gotten up to 50 degrees during the day—has sparked earlier-than-usual salamander romance. He wanted to scope the ponds for his upcoming walk. This year the ponds are not just open but also very low. We’ve had only one snowfall, perhaps 4 inches; it melted within two days. There’s been no other snow to swell the vernal pools, and very little rain.
The night was moonless with a little ground fog, stilling the woodlands, making them seem other-worldly. Overhead, Orion presided as stars spangled.
Wearing waders, we entered the water and our boots sank into sucking muck, raising great mud-whorls that gave us just a few seconds to see what was in our head-lamp beams, keeping us moving along. To move in mud like this, you have to rock your foot forward heel-to-toe. If you simply try to lift a boot, you discover how powerful is the mud’s suction. So you slosh and go slow. Try to hurry—you don’t go anywhere.
I was amazed at the active pond-life in mid-February. And surprised to see two bullfrogs that were out on the open bottom, not hibernating in the mud. Many of the aquatic beetle-like bugs called water boatmen rowed jerkily through the mid-depths with their special oar-like legs. I saw one water-strider. And in one pond we noticed many, many tiny shrimp. I don’t think I’ve ever seen freshwater shrimp before. They looked like typical shrimp, but clear-bodied and perhaps only a quarter-inch long, miniaturized almost to the vanishing point. (Later, it took me a long while searching the Internet to decide very tentatively that those might have been Gammarus fasciatus).
Our intended quarry was, as I alluded, elusive salamanders. Specifically a group called “mole” salamanders, which spend most of their lives several feet underground. In late winter, of all times, they migrate as much as a thousand feet to breeding ponds, some of which are hardly more than springtime puddles. Standing in nighttime woods full of downed trees, it’s difficult imagining salamanders at a cold crawl successfully navigating to tiny pools.
Theirs is a strange life that gets stranger. The mole salamanders around here include Tiger; Marbled; Spotted; and Blue-spotted, a rare, genetically pure form of which lives in Montauk at Long Island’s tip, in Nova Scotia, and almost nowhere else. Blue-spotteds have a bizarre reproductive resumé. In most of their range, they’re almost all female. To breed, they have to mate with a male—and any related species will do. But while they require sperm penetration of the egg cell to initiate embryo development, the egg usually discards the sperm’s genes—and begins cloning itself. Not so easily jilted, the sperm’s genome is often incorporated into the fetus, in the form of an added genome. The result is animals with extra sets of genes, called polyploids. Or, the male genome may replace part of the female genome. The scientists who worked on this write, “Unisexual salamanders steal sperm from donors of normally bisexual species, so their reproductive mode is described as kleptogenesis,”—stolen fertilization (http://bit.ly/yslvWG). I’d like to see Congress debate that.
We found nothing at the first pools. But I wondered how many of animals would have to be hiding under the leaves and debris at the pond floor before we could discover one of them.
At the last pond, the bottom was clearer, with fewer leaves. We were all wading into the cones of light our lamps were casting when Andy’s call, “Tiger!” rang out into the woods.
It had already begun swimming away from Andy and he started forward to lunge with his net. But the mud had his boots, and the forward momentum caused him to almost fall into the water; he dropped his net, which sank. Frank was trying to “hurry” over, with Andy still yelling. Catching a glimpse of the salamander in a blooming cloud of mud, Frank stabbed with his net. It came up full of muck—and the salamander.
Spanning, I’d say, a good eight inches, its skin marked with eponymous yellow on dark, its tail widened into a rudder-like propulsive mechanism for shimmying around in its breeding pond, this was quite a creature. In New York State they’re found only on Long Island; not surprisingly they’re on the state’s endangered list. This Tiger did not frame as fearful a symmetry as its namesake, but Frank, a family man in his 40s, said that seeing it gave him goose bumps. I’d liked Frank since I met him a couple of years ago, but that remark really warmed me to him.
A salamander might not seem like worthy quarry for four grown men, but you’d be wrong to think so. There was the creature’s convening power, bringing together internationally involved people with mutual interests. It had gotten us out into the plush woodland richness of a February night; what else would? Salamanders could occupy a person’s entire career because there are well over 100 kinds in east-central North America alone. I’ve marveled at early naturalists’ ability to puzzle all this out and I’ve wondered what kind of men they were. But then again, here we were, perhaps not so different from those naturalists as time might make it seem.
After we’d all gotten good looks and a chance to feel the Tiger’s heft, Andy waded back into the pond to release it. We got a little spread out while walking back along the shore. Frank started whistling a tremolo, imitating a Screech Owl. I answered Frank from a distance behind him (I cared for a flight-impaired Screech Owl for 16 years, and I can call them as well as anyone and better than most). It took him a minute to ask if that was me. I said yes but then a real one, then two, joined in. One swooped right in over us, highly motivated to drive the heard intruder from his territory. Frank’s light caught its brick-red plumage beautifully as it flew by and landed on a branch. “Good stuff,” said Frank. Andy smiled.