The Meaning of Life (For a Ringed Salamander)

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A Ringed Salamander high on a ridgetop in the Ouachita Mountains

In my day to day life, I’m not a particularly philosophical person.  There are times, however, that I can’t help but ponder those difficult existential questions.  These moments tend to occur when I’m immersed in the natural world, experiencing some aspect of extreme wildness, solitude, or some seemingly magical natural event or occurrence.  I found myself wrapped up in a number of such moments recently in the Ouachita Mountains of eastern Oklahoma.

It was hard not to start thinking about life’s unknowns, as we pushed into the Sooner State at dusk, and immense, billowing storm clouds advanced from the distant horizon.  Caro and I were once again pursuing the Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum).  I first came looking for them in November 2012, when the air was cold and the hillsides shone with the brilliance of forests cloaked in fall foliage.  That year we were too late.  We found countless larval annulatum, and a few freshly laid eggs, but the adults eluded us.  We returned again in October of 2015, but it was during a mild drought, and the region had only experienced a few small rain events preceding our visit.  That year we did not find any evidence of the salamanders.  In all fairness, it was a poorly timed visit, but it was the only chance I had.  In 2016 a couple of early season cool fronts passed over the Ouachitas.  We were able to visit a week or so after one of these fronts, and despite our best efforts were only able to turn up scores of week old eggs.

Then, in 2018, things changed, and after visiting nearly a dozen potential breeding ponds, I finally turned up a single adult.  It was an incredibly rewarding experience, but something was still lacking.  I longed to really experience the salamanders’ world, and to see them in their element.  So this year, when weather reports were calling for an early October front that promised to bring with it a deluge, I decided I would take off from work, start the weekend early and make for the mountains.  The plan was to arrive as the front hit, and hope that we might witness a Ringed Salamander migration event.

Lightning illuminated the storm clouds, turning them into a gargantuan strobe.  Never in my life have I seen a storm bare lightning with such frequency and intensity.  The night was more light than dark.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I found myself feeling nervous among it all.  The energy – the sheer power generated through that nephological friction was enough to leave anyone intimidated, and my truck seemed insufficient protection to shield me from the storm’s wrath.

This mighty tempest had me pondering my own significance.  As a blinding flash illuminated a distant weathered peak, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this storm were to consume me.  Our survival instincts have evolutionarily programmed us humans to feel an inflated sense of self importance.  If I were gone, friends and family would mourn, work would be left unfinished, but in the grand scheme of thing, the world would keep turning, and the wildflowers, salamanders, and other natural things that I hold so dear wouldn’t notice.  Their lives would not be effected, and the natural order would continue as if I had never existed.  This may seem like a bleak thought to some, but I take comfort in it.  I never like to think of myself as having some higher connection to nature.  I don’t have a relationship with the plants or animals.  I am but an observer and occasional interferer and modifier of this world.  I have worked for many years as a researcher and conservationist, but these efforts are only acknowledged by human minds, and any benefit to the species is purely a biproduct of those efforts, and no sense of gratitude or realization of such work is realized by the organisms themselves.  It seems silly, but as a kid I had actual nightmares where I was living out some kind of Dr. Doolittle scenario, and was able to communicate with animals.  This might sound like a dream to some, but to me it ruined the sense of wonder and curiosity that I felt for the natural world.

It wasn’t until an hour after the onset of lightning that the rain fell.  But when it did, it was with such unfathomable volume that the wall of precipitation crashed over my windshield like a wave and reduced my visibility to just 10 feet in front of the truck.  I slowed to a crawl as the rain fell in droves.  It may seem strange to want weather like this while on a vacation, but this is exactly what I had hoped for.  We crept through the deluge until we reached our Airbnb.  Normally I would opt for camping on trips like this, but I knew the weather was going to be harsh, and wanted to focus on the hunt, rather than setting up and tending to camp.  Locating our temporary home was not without its own adventure, as we struggled to find the cabin among darkness, rain, and mislabeled streets.  But after a brief conversation with the very friendly and hopeful host, we found it – a quaint two bedroom log cabin in the mountains.

After a quick dinner of milanesa sandwiches, we set back out into the night.  The rain had slowed to a drizzle as we traversed windy, rocky, muddy mountain roads.  After some time we reached the first pond.  I had visited this site several times prior, and generally it is little more than knee deep and a few feet wide.  I had always found large numbers of eggs and larvae at this site, so I had high hopes as I waded through the wet brush.

I soon came to realize that what I had expected to be little more than a deep puddle had swollen to a muddy 1/4 acre pond.  I first worked the edges with my net, and began finding eggs.  After turning up empty handed along the shallow margins, I slowly made my way deeper into the pond.  Soon the water reached my waste, and then my chest.  As I approached the deepest point of the pond, the rain again began to fall.  It’s strange, but despite air temperatures in the 60s, and a cold autumn rain, I felt perfectly comfortable submerged here, in a ridgetop pond surrounded by a stunted forest high in the Ouachita Mountains.  I held my flashlight in my teeth, and probed my net among the pond’s bottom, which was a mess of mud and rocks.  I was practically floating as I pulled the net up, and among the mud, eggs, and woody debris, I saw a wriggling line of black and yellow.  I had one.

“I got one!” I called as I made my way back to the truck, where Caro was patiently waiting.  With renewed energy, I returned to the pond, swam out to the middle, and continued my search.  After a few minutes I pulled up a large, spent female which ranks as one of the most beautiful salamanders I have ever seen.

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A spent female Ringed Salamander – one of the most beautiful salamanders I have ever seen

The overwhelming urge to breed is what brought the salamanders here.  Ambystoma annulatum and most other members of its genus breed only once or twice a year, always in response to specific weather cues.  They live the vast majority of the year hidden away in subterranean burrows, generally seeking out abandoned mammal burrows, or perhaps in the case of the Ringed Salamander, complex series of crevices and passageways created by deep layers of talus.  Here they will feed opportunistically, and likely very rarely, if ever, visit the surface outside the breeding season.

But when the temperature and timing of rainfall is just right, they will emerge from these underground haunts en masse, and migrate in droves to their ancestral breeding ponds.  Most species of Ambystoma undertake this incredible, harrowing journey in the later winter or early spring, but a few, like the Ringed Salamander, do so in the fall.  The males generally arrive at the pond first, and scope out the bottom for the perfect sites to deposit small sperm laden packets called spermatophores.  Here they will await the arrival of the females.  When the females arrive, the male guides her through a series of nudges, tickles, and sexy courtship dances toward one of his spermatophores.  If she is receptive, she will pick up his deposit with her cloaca, fertilizing the large mass of eggs that has caused her to swell to several times her normal girth.  She then proceeds to deposit the eggs, sometimes singly, sometimes in loose clusters, on vegetation, debris, or the pond bottom.  In all the process typically takes only a night or two.  The adults may hang out in or around the ponds for a week or two, but as soon as more rainy or humid nights arrive, they quickly exit the pond and return to their burrows to live a life hidden from the world for another year.  Ringed Salamanders appear to stagger their breeding events, likely an evolutionary adaptation that helps maximize the chance that some eggs and larvae will survive, however the first large rain event tends to trigger the largest migrations.

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Ringed Salamanders

Pondering the life history of these amphibians piqued my curiosity to perhaps the greatest burning question and unsolved mystery in human history: the meaning of life.  Human beings seem so eager to attach a meaning or a purpose to their lives.  But do any of our planet’s other living things do the same?  Does the Ringed Salamander ponder its existence?  Does it wonder “what it all means” as it sits essentially motionless in its burrow for 360 days of the year?  I doubt it.  In fact, I have often considered the human brain to have evolved under a mechanism similar to runaway selection, a scenario in sexual selection where a particular secondary sexual trait becomes such a strong preference in mate selection that something akin to an arms race develops with the genes for developing the trait and the genes for selecting the trait.  What results is like a loop where the genetic selection for that trait reinforces its development, resulting in a relatively rapid evolution of overly gaudy physical characteristics that serve little purpose other than to attract a mate.  Think the feathers on a peacock.

Though the example of the human brain is not necessarily related to sexual selection, a similar scenario took place as our ancestor’s brains evolved, and with them so did certain behaviors like the use of tools, which likely served to further enhance and accelerate the evolutionary development of the brain itself.  One side effect of developing such a complex, problem solving cerebrum is it developed capabilities beyond what was necessary for our survival and reproduction.  Once we found ways to make our lives easier and more comfortable, and our survival more assured, large portions of that beefy brain went unused.  We soon found a way to put them to use, however, and as a result, civilizations were formed, religions were developed, and complex ideas about our existence arose.  Our brains are so advanced, that they lead us to seek out answers to vague and rhetorical questions that serve little purpose to our survival as a species.  I don’t think that Ringed Salamanders are burdened with such questions, but rather driven by a reception of environmental cues and a cocktail of hormones that leads them to undertake this perilous journey year after year.

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Ringed Salamander

But I digress.  After some time at the first pond, we continued to another.  The next breeding site was located in a shallow depression in the field of an old abandoned farmstead.  Here the water was shallow and clear, and as I made my way about the edge of the pond I could actually see a few salamanders swimming about.  I even saw one spent female leaving the pond; having deposited the next generation, she returned to her upland refugia.  Perhaps some narrow escape from a predator or other adventure awaited her on her return journey.

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A Ringed Salamander photographed shortly after she left her breeding pond.

The rain had stopped, and Caro explored the road ahead.  Here she found another individual on the crawl, moving away from the pond.  It would seem that we timed our trip just right, and that most of the animals, in these ponds at least, were in the process of a mass exodus.  In fact, we did not turn up a single male.  All of our observations were of post breeding females, and I presumed that they likely bred during a smaller rain event a week prior.

On the drive out, Caro spotted another Ringed Salamander on the road, and I saw a large Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum).  I had not expected to see the latter species on this high, rocky ridgeline, however it was most certainly a welcome observation.  The Spotted Sally is one of my all time favorite critters.  I have dozens of pictures of them, so I did not take the time to photograph this one, save for a few record shots with my cell phone.

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A Spotted Salamander found crossing the road on a rainy night in the Ouachitas.

The roads were also full of Dwarf American Toads (Bufo americanus charlesmithi).  This species is actually on my list of biodiversity goals, however I was unsuccessful in obtaining a good image of one on this trip.  But rest assured I will return!

We arrived back in our cabin sometime after 1 A.M.  I was reeling from an incredible night, and found it difficult to sleep despite a gentle rain that continued until morning.  Overnight the temperature dropped by 30 degrees, and it was below freezing as we began to stir the next morning.  We wandered around the grounds a bit, admiring a myriad of fungi and fall blooming goldenrods and asters.  Caro even spotted Spiranthes cernua in bloom.  After a breakfast of eggs, toast, and jam, we set out to explore the Ouachitas in the daylight.  We spent most of the day exploring ponds in hopes that we might turn up a few salamanders in the daylight.

The first pond we visited is one where we found ample evidence of breeding salamanders last year.  This year was no different, but most eggs contained developing embryos that were likely laid a week or so prior.  I looked around the margins of the pond, and made a few halfhearted attempts at dipnetting.  I even found a Copperhead under the same large, flat stone that I found one last year.  It was a different individual this year, but due to the cold temperatures I opted not to disturb it, and carefully replaced the rock.

Meanwhile, Caro had seen a Ringed Salamander swim to the surface for a gulp of air.  I tried dipnetting the area but was unable to capture anything.  She also pointed out the mangled tail and hind legs of an individual that had clearly fallen victim to some predator the night before.  Though they may only move a few hundred meters or less from their upland burrows to their breeding ponds, these salamanders face incredible danger.  Many fall victim to vehicles and predators along the way.

We left that pond and continued onto another.  The next pond is where I found my first live adult last year.  After some time spent exploring the area, I turned up another spent female.  From there we visited five more ponds, all devoid of evidence of salamanders.  Visiting so many potential breeding sites, a pattern emerged.  It seemed, at least in this part of their range, that the Ringed Salamander preferred smaller ponds with an abundance of herbaceous vegetation along the margins and within the basin.

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A Ringed Salamander from the pond where I found my first adult last year.

Near one of the ponds we saw a young Striped Skunk scouring a boulder field, presumably in search of prey.  As we slowed to investigate, it “bowed up” at us.  Caro, who has a strong passion for all things Carnivora, couldn’t help but get out for a closer look.  Fortunately she kept a respectful distance, and finally returned to the truck when the skunk began raising its tail, indicating it had reached the limits of its patience.

Our pursuit of salamander ponds brought us across narrow, windy, rocky roads, which I enjoyed navigating in four-wheel drive.  The more accessible ponds had clear evidence that they had been visited recently, likely by other salamander enthusiasts, yet the ponds deeper into the wilderness showed little to no evidence of human activity.  Even the roads looked seldom traversed.  I worried for some of these populations.  It is not unheard of for collectors to harvest huge numbers of salamanders for sale in the pet trade, and just last year some friends visiting the area reported evidence of this.  One of the ponds they visited had virtually every piece of natural cover turned over and not returned to its natural position.  It’s hard for me to understand how someone with a genuine interest and passion for these organisms could be so destructive.  The complex nature of our brains that allows us to develop such passions and interests also obligates us to minimize our footprint in their pursuit, and work to bettering their populations and habitats, rather than harming them.

We returned to pavement as the sun fell low on the horizon.  We returned to our cabin, where we enjoyed the warmth and other creature comforts it provided, until the effects of a long day took their toll on our bodies, and we retired to sleep.

The next morning we woke late and cooked a big breakfast at the cabin.  We then followed the winding road up to the top of Rich Mountain, where we encountered a forest of dwarf oaks, hickories, and blackgums.  I wrote about these unique communities in my post about last year’s visit to the area.  Just below the exposed ridges where these dwarves dwell, a rich forest of diverse hardwoods can be found.  These forests are home to a rich community of plant and animal species, including a number of endemic salamander species.

Here we found a number of Southern Redback Salamanders (Plethodon serratus) and Rich Mountain Salamanders (Plethodon ouachitae).  The latter is a Ouachita Mountain endemic, and comes in a variety of forms.  The form that we encountered was the “Rich Mountain Variant”, which bears a rich chestnut brown pattern on its dorsum.

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Rich Mountain Salamander

After an hour or so spent hiking around Rich Mountain, we descended into the town of Mena, Arkansas.  While in town we visited some of the local shops and stocked up on provisions.  From Mena we went on to a very different Ringed Salamander breeding site in western Arkansas.  At this particular site, an ephemeral wetland has formed in a depression at the base of a rocky slope.  Had it not been for a friend who found this spot and was kind enough to tell me about it, I would never have expected to find pond breeding salamanders there.

I was initially hopeful as I approached the depression.  The pond itself was virtually dry, save for a few puddles an inch or less deep.  There must have been water a day or two prior, however, as there were fresh spermatophores littering the floor of the pond.  These spermatophores still contain a sperm cap, and I was later informed by the friend who shared the spot with me that this indicates they were deposited within just a couple of days.  Surely then, I thought, there must still be some salamanders hanging around the pond’s margins.

Unfortunately, this particular site is virtually lacking in the type of debris conducive to locating salamanders under cover.  The rocky nature of the slope essentially formed a talus where rocks were stacked upon other rocks, creating a porous subsurface that would allow for a salamander to retreat deep into its recesses, and well out of reach.

I was happy to find a small Ouachita Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus brimleyorum) near a small ephemeral stream adjacent to the pond.  In my Ringed Salamander fervor, however, I neglected to photograph it.  Nor did I photograph the numerous Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula) found nearby.  I was ready to call it, when I turned a rock and spotted a massive blob of black and yellow.  It was an absolutely enormous gravid Ringed Salamander.

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A massive gravid Ringed Salamander found near a dry ephemeral pond.

Despite her comical and uncomfortable appearance, she seemed to be getting on just fine (though I’m sure she would very much welcome the rains that would fill her breeding pond to a sufficient depth for her to be courted and fertilized so that she may be rid of her undoubtedly heavy load).  Ringed Salamanders may lay more than 150 eggs, which are generally deposited either singly or in small clumps scattered among debris on the pond’s bottom and attached to submerged sticks or vegetation.

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A heavily gravid Ringed Salamander

The incredible amount of effort necessary to locate the gravid female perfectly illustrates the difficult and frustration associated with searching for this species.  Even in areas where they are abundant, and evidence indicates they were very recently at the surface, they are incredibly difficult to turn up.

The sun soon found its way toward the horizon, and the forest grew dark and cold.  We took that as our cue to begin our trek back to our cabin.  On the way we were surprised to find a large, recently hit rat snake dead on the road.  It must have been seeking the sun’s rays to warm its blood on a chilly day when it met its untimely demise.  As we followed the winding roads through the hills, we saw a brilliant moon rise over the distant trees.

That night we grilled burgers, watched television, and relaxed in the warmth of the cabin.  The next morning we slept late, ate breakfast, and packed up.  I was going to miss our cozy little temporary homestead.  On our way out we stopped at one of the ponds where we found a number of salamanders on that first rainy night.  The water had receded significantly, and in doing so exposed a large flat stone under which I found the final two Ringed Salamanders of the trip.

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One of two Ringed Salamanders flipped near a breeding pond.

The ridgetop was alive that morning, as hundreds of migrating Monarch Butterflies danced about blooming goldenrods and other late season asters in pursuit of nectar to fuel their continued southward journey.  I was sad that we too, must now head south.  Though short, this trip was full of incredible experiences, and allowed me to recharge, reflect, and reconsider my thoughts on nature, happiness, and the meaning of life.  I may not have found the answers to any of life’s existential questions, but being among the salamanders and skunks in the wildness of the Ouachita Mountains made me comfortable with the inevitable realization that I never will.

3 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life (For a Ringed Salamander)

  1. Hey Matt, I just love reading your wonderful thoughts. You and Caro are fortunate to share the same passion for natural things, and we are fortunate that you share that passion with us…

    —Jim

    Like

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