On a brisk night last fall, I found myself hanging off a moss-laden cliff, clinging to a rope for dear life and trying not to look down. As the light from my headlamp careened around the wall of dirt in front of me, I cast furtive glances upwards, silently willing the rope to hold me and the knot to stay wound around the tree above. A tree which appeared sturdy enough earlier but now seemed to be giving a little too much. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and tried to focus on the task at hand; I was here to capture one of the rarest animals in the world, the federally threatened Red Hills Salamander.
This salamander, Alabama’s state amphibian, is found solely in south Alabama, and in very specific habitats. To my great misfortune, these specific habitats are steep slopes and ravines. I vainly tried to gain a foothold among the loose dirt clods on the cliff, gingerly moving so that I didn’t disturb the ground or accidently squish a salamander as miniature avalanches of dirt and small rocks cascaded down around me.
Red Hills salamanders live nearly their entire lives in small burrows on these cliffs, often only their head is visible as they peek out from their subterranean caverns. They’re thought to rarely leave them. Unlike many other salamanders, hatchlings do not develop in water, females lay eggs within their burrows and that’s where the young are born. Interestingly, the hatchlings possess gills for their first few days of life, perhaps a reminder of their more traditional ancestors.
Red Hills salamanders have a few things going against them. Due to their extremely small range (five counties in south Alabama) and their specific habitat requirements (steep slopes), there just aren’t a lot of places for them to live. Combine that with logging practices that degrade their homes and it’s easy to see why the salamander is in trouble.
The inevitable march of human “progress” is stepping on this rare species. I was helping a colleague, contracted by the state, capture all the salamanders on this cliff before a road construction project destroyed the entire area. It’s a common misconception that endangered species often halt construction and development projects, what typically happens instead is developers first make some concession to limit their environmental impact and then proceed as usual. When the next project comes along, they make another concession, and so forth. It’s not surprising why it’s hard for endangered species to recover, although there are some success stories.
As I swung back and forth looking for salamander burrows, my waist harness creeping up uncomfortably, I figured that there must not have been a large concession. Our goal was to catch salamanders here so they could eventually be relocated elsewhere. It was a risky proposition as there was no way of knowing if the relocated salamanders would take to their new home, but it was better than the alternative, (i.e. leaving them to get paved over).
About an hour after arriving, my headlamp suddenly illuminated what I thought was an eyeball. When only their head is visible in their burrow, it’s hard to imagine how big Red Hills salamanders can grow, nearly a foot long. These slender animals are a nightmare to any unfortunate cricket that might stroll by their burrows. In a flash, the salamander will emerge, mouth agape, to grasp any insect that it can cram down its gullet. I trained my light on the little cavern and slowly maneuvered closer for a better look. A salamander face looked back at me. I reached into my pocket for a bag of crickets, moving very slowly to avoid scaring the skittish creature back into the depths.
It takes some finesse to catch these animals. There’s really only one reliable method: fishing for them. Still moving as slowly and deliberately as possible, I impaled a hapless cricket onto a barbless hook and gently placed the insect in front of the burrow. I should interject here that we took every precaution to minimize stress on the salamanders; we likely wouldn’t have used this method if it weren’t so important to catch and relocate the animals. This was a specific conservation effort sanctioned by state and federal authorities.
When the salamander detected the cricket, it was instantly interested and on the prowl. With focused intensity, the amphibian zoned in. Mirroring the salamander’s concentration, I willed it to take the bug bait. Seemingly in slow motion, the salamander began to open his mouth. This was it, I readied myself. It continued to open its mouth so wide that it could no longer see the cricket, understandably reducing its aim. As I watched the salamander awkwardly miss the cricket several times, I wondered how they ever catch enough food to survive. Eventually however, the salamander did figure out the right angle, and I quickly secured the animal. As I gently removed it from the burrow, I admired the strange creature in front of me.
Red Hills salamanders not as bulky as other amphibians you might see, they’re long and slender with greatly reduced limbs. Overall, it reminded me of a worm. An unflattering description, but they’re surprisingly charismatic, perhaps because of their large, inquisitive eyes. I gently removed the hook and placed the salamander within a small tube, we hoped it would remind it of its burrow.
I waited until the salamander was safely secured in its tube before I yelled to the others that I had caught one, the first of the night. They responded with their praise. I was starting to get the hang of this whole night mountain climbing thing after all; I could hardly notice the creaking rope, the dark abyss below me, or the intimate relationship I had developed with my harness. I managed to catch another salamander, two of several captured that night.
I hoped the salamanders would be content in their new home. They’d be safe for now, at least until they start talking about the next road construction project.
Over a year later, the road construction has yet to occur and the salamanders have been brought back to their original burrows. Due to the large number of salamanders documented in the effort described above, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service required a revision to the original blueprints. The updated plans now require the roadway to miss the majority of the burrows; however, the highway will separate the remaining salamanders.