Shortly after waking up this morning I was greeted by two unexpected but welcome surprises: a short lived rain shower and this cute little Arboreal Salamander in my shade garden! Yesterday was cool, cloudy and breezy, and this morning the fog lingered around for quite some time (such a beautiful sight!). I should have known that the local herps might be active, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see this cute little guy in my birdbath! As soon as I saw it, I rushed outside to get a closer look.
According to Gary Nafis and his helpful website, A Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of California, Arboreal Salamanders (Aneides lugubris) are “commonly seen in shaded yards and gardens in Northern California, especially around the Bay Area.” These lungless salamanders breathe through their skin and typically live in cool, damp environments (under fallen branches, rocks, flower pots and paving stones). More importantly, Mr. Nafis states, “In California, they do not inhabit streams or bodies of water, but are capable of surviving for some time if they fall into water.” I was pretty worried about this one; I had no idea how long it was underwater, so I gently nudged it out. I was incredibly relieved when the little prehensile tail coiled around my finger (so cool!) and angry at myself for failing to put rocks in the saucer to help small critters navigate their way out. We keep this shallow birdbath/water source on the ground for our resident juncoes – they drink from it and splash around on hot days, but I should have realized that it might attract other visitors. I should have remembered that the glazed ceramic interior is slippery and could lead to an easily avoided tragedy.
Once the salamander was safely out of the saucer, I carefully added several rough textured stones to create a simple ramp that small animals could use to safely enter and exit the water. It’s easy to forget that for small critters, being stranded in an inch or two of water can result in death. Sure enough, when I nudged this young salamander, it’s tiny feet couldn’t grip the slippery surface of this glazed ceramic saucer. I felt terrible, this could have had a very sad ending. Thankfully, this one was okay – a short time later it crawled into the crevice between the rocks and the saucer (very normal behavior).
Which reminds me of another tip for Bay Area gardeners: be very careful when moving or lifting potted plants in the shade garden (like those in the image above), there’s a good chance that one or more small creatures may be living underneath. If you do encounter a salamander living beneath a rock or potted plant, please don’t try to place the object back on top – the salamander will get crushed. Instead, gently relocate the critter to a nearby spot that’s damp, cool, quiet and protected. Before long, it will find a new home. This actually happened to us just last month when our painters were here.
We’ve also encountered Arboreal Salamanders when digging in the garden. We came across the one pictured above – shown in situ – between the edge of a concrete patio and an old piece of redwood edging that we had removed. Thankfully it wasn’t injured.
Be very careful when relocating Arboreal Salamanders, they have strong jaws and sharp teeth capable of producing a painful bite. I suggest using a cup and saucer to move them to their new home. Besides protecting your hands (as well as their fragile skin), the cup and saucer will prevent them from escaping – salamanders can move fast!
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have a shade garden like mine, there’s a good chance your garden is home to salamanders, frogs, lizards or snakes. As much as it delights me, I realize that it may frighten other gardeners; however, try to remember that these small animals are an important and fragile part of the ecosystem. I welcome the Arboreal Salamanders that live in my yard not only because they’re cute, but because they eat snails, ants, moths, centipedes, millipedes and even termites! If you’re still nervous, rest easy knowing that these primarily nocturnal creatures are only active after rain (usually in winter and spring) so it’s more than likely you’ll almost never encounter one face to face.