Thursday, September 15, 2011

Long-toed Salamanders for Lunch

Long-toed Salamander (c) John Ashley
Adult long-toed salamander
"Hey you guys," the bearded one calls out, "look at this thing I dug up!" "What is it?" asks the young woman holding a shovel.  The unbearded guy pipes in, "Is it a lizard?" "It's a newt," the bearded one says with authority. "Put him back," the woman hefting the spud bar tells the boys. The unbearded one declares, "Let's eat him!" to mixed laughter and eewwws.

I know they're just kidding around, just a bunch of young Montana Conservation Corps kids, digging up a rotten set of wooden steps at a Forest Service campground, and having fun in the fall woods. I climb up the hill to join them. "That's a long-toed salamander," I explain. "They live underground most of the year. Only come up to feed at night, and to breed in spring. Just re-bury him over there, out of your way." But my help spoils their fun. They preferred the thought of eating a newt - that would have made for a good story to be recounted for years, long after adulthood kidnaps their carefree days.

Long-toed salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum) are the most common of Montana's three salamander species, but they only occur in the northwestern corner of our state. The first museum specimens were collected in 1891 during Northern Boundary Survey of the 49th parallel. The species ranges west to the Pacific, and up from Oregon to northern British Columbia. Their success in the northwest is probably due to their versatility. They occur from sea level to 9,100 feet elevation (in the Big Hole area of Beaverhead County), from wet coastal forests to cold mountain meadows.

They have four toes on their front feet and five toes on their hind feet. Macro dactylum translates to "long toe," referring to the extended forth toe on their hind feet, and giving them their common name. Just don't call them newts, and don't eat them.