Unearthing Salamander Secrets

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Featured - Defenders cover 1989
Salmander on moss - photo by Robert Simpson
Salmander on moss – photo by Robert Simpson

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“Unearthing Salamander Secrets” was published in the Defenders of Wildlife, September/October 1989.

“LONG associated with the clammy clutter in the pockets of small boys, salamanders are hard to glamorize. After all, they do live un­der rocks. They have names like ‘slimy’ and ‘shovelnose’ for reasons entirely deserved. Even scientific in­terest has been prejudiced. Writing about the class Amphibia to which salamanders belong, the great taxon­omist Carolus Linnaeus in his 1758 Systema Naturae called them ‘foul and loathsome animals … abhorrent because of their cold body … fierce aspect … and squalid habitation.’

It’s true that amphibians, having evolved from freshwater fish into the first land vertebrates some 350 mil­lion years ago, still associate inti­mately with wet or at least damp places. Still, typical salamander habi­tation in limpid mountain creeks or hidden springs, under draping moss curtains near streambanks and be­neath the punky mass of decayed trees on silent slopes hardly rates as ‘squalid.’ Admittedly, salamander diets are foul and loathsome if snails, slugs, spiders, ants, beetles, mites, millipedes and the like are not to your taste. And it’s true that salaman­ders are surprisingly fierce for such small and slow-moving crea­tures, some of them being among the few known cannibalistic animals.”