(Or Another Appalachian Animal Allegory)
It was a dark and stormy day, well stormy anyway, but quite warm for December. After a rainy afternoon of wandering about in the forest looking for things to photograph, dodging excitable whitetails, and enduring the malicious behavior of those reprobate owls who would hoot at me then fly away before being photographed, (owls can be terribly uncooperative, as can be those miscreants, the pileated woodpeckers), it was getting late and I was making my wet and dripping way back to the dubious charms of civilization in a rising fog. (Sorry, I know that was a long sentence, but I had a lot of words to get out, phew!).
My route back to my loyal steed, Honda, was down a stretch of railroad tracks to the closest road (dead end in the middle of nowhere). On these tracks is where I met Her Royal Highness Princess Yellowspot Longtail Salamanicus, heir apparent of the Salamanicus Clan, who was in dire circumstances.
As I was walking along, I heard a thin weak voice, in the tones of one who expects to be obeyed, say: “You there, human; I demand that you help me! This sort of thing is your kind’s fault!”
Though I do sometimes hear voices, they usually say things like “poke the rattlesnake with a stick to see what happens” or “go ahead…have another beer”. Usually I pay them little heed (except for the beer thing) (oh, and I did once poke a big timber rattler with a stick, only once, mind you). But this voice sounded real, so I looked down and saw a beautiful spotted salamander.
The voice spoke again, in slightly less haughty tones. “I am Princess Yellowspot Longtail Salamanicus and I require your assistance.”
I doffed my hat, made a bow, and replied, “How may I assist you, fair lady? You have but to command me.” It’s generally wise to be polite to royalty (or at least play along).
“Ah, a gentleman at last! Are you some sort of Knight Errant on a quest to help lost princesses?” she asked.
I sez, suppressing a grin, “Well you are correct about the errant part, but the rest is open for debate. But I will be happy to assist your Highness in any way I can”.
She replied, “Oh thank you kind sir. I have been separated from my noble guards and ladies in waiting and I am trapped between these two horrible steel things. It’s getting cold! We salamanders are cold blooded you know, and my strength is being sapped. Can you help me get to the other side of the tracks? I must meet my people by the pool with the large stump just over there.”
“Certainly, your Highness. Perhaps you should rest in my hands for a bit to get some of my warmth and regain some strength?”
“Oh, thank you, kind sir; that would be acceptable.” she replied. As Her Highness rested in my hands, regaining her warmth, I got the tale of woe that has beset the Salamanicus Clan.
A Tail of Woe
On the side of the tracks that the Salamanicus Clan lived, some forestry work was being done. This is a low swampy area with a clean flowing stream – perfect habitat for spotted salamanders. The work being done had not taken into account the disruption of habitat of our amphibian friends. Forestry work tends to be more concerned with game management, like deer and turkeys, than with other more hidden creatures.
The Clan had decided to immigrate to the swamp on the other side of the tracks but they ran out of time. So the Salamanicus Clan had to run for it. In broad daylight. Spotted salamanders are nocturnal creatures so this was made doubly hard. In a terrifying swirling mass of trucks, chainsaws, and booted feet (though not jackbooted, yet), the Clan got separated in their run across the tracks. As befits proper leadership, Her Highness brought up the rear to make sure all of her people were safe but then got trapped between the rails. Fortunately I happened along and could help.
So after our talk, and a formal thank you, Her Highness jumped down from my hand and began her stately walk to her people, I pointedly ignored the guards armed with hawthorn pikes that moved out to meet her; some things in the deep dark woods it’s just wise to not notice. As the Princess moved to her people, she turned and gave me a warning.
“‘Ware the frogs and toads, human. They have overcome their differences and formed an alliance. They say they have had enough. Fare thee well human.”
“Fare thee well your Highness.” I replied, and went on my merry way, happy to have been of service. Note that I made no jokes about royalty going to “the other side of the tracks”.
Everybody needs help at some point, so don’t be afraid to ask for it if you need it. It is also so very important that you give help where you can – no matter whether it is a friend, a stranger, or a salamander. We are all in this thing called life together, even those suddenly dangerous and oddly frightening frogs and toads.
It is also important to pay attention, to be in tune with your environment, to see what is around you, to notice that your friend needs help that they might not be willing to ask for. Had I not been paying attention, I may have stepped on Princess Yellowspot, and that would have saddened my life greatly. Oh, and I really did poke a rattlesnake with a stick, I was paying attention to the bear that was following me and stepped on the snake. I poked the snake to make sure he was okay; he was. Scared the crap out of me though and now I have a good pair of snake proof boots. They go all the way up to my knees and they are light enough to run from bears. I sometimes have a far too interesting life.
Activities such as forestry and construction have a detrimental effect on animal habitats. It can be bad for the species we are more used to seeing like the deer and turkeys, but even more so for the critters we don’t see all that often. We, as good stewards of our world, should understand this. The reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and insects we tend to ignore, or not like, all have an important place in the great system of balancing forces we call life. Be mindful; we as a whole have screwed up this system enough and since we are the smartest creatures on this world (debatable, I know) we should be fixing what we can.
The Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)
In my opinion the spotted salamander is one of the most beautiful of salamanders. They grow up to nine inches long and have a sturdy build. Color-wise, they are a dark blue/black or black with largish yellow spots (the spots can also be orange). Their habitat by preference is wet lowland hardwood forest but they can also be found in more elevated hardwood forests. They are predators and feed mostly on insects, grubs, and slugs. Though they can be hard to see, the population of spotted salamanders is doing well and they are quite common – if you know where to look. Please don’t bother them though. A female will travel to the same pool every year to lay eggs, 90% of which will not reach maturity. Higher than normal acid levels in water may have something to do with this.
Do they have royalty and live in clans? That is for you to decide.
A Note on a Strange Phenomenon
One of those strange things that I have noticed over the years is the inability of some creatures to negotiate the crossing of railroad tracks. Usually it is box turtles that this happens to, but larger salamanders, lizards, and at least one snake have also fallen prey to it. An animal can get over one rail but then cannot get over the other one. You would think that if they can get over one they should be able to get over the other. I suspect that the mass of steel confuses reptile and amphibian navigation systems, which are very likely magnetically based. I am no herpetologist so if any of you reading this are, I would love to know more about this.
Trent Carbaugh, December, 2018