Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum)
Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae)
We could barely see. Columns of air that cooled as they rose up the mountainside created a fog so dense that trees less than a hundred feet away were completely invisible. Orthographic lift is a common occurrence here, as evidenced by the dense coats of lichen and moss coating nearly every tree trunk. I was happy. To some nature lovers happiness is a wide open mountain vista, or an endless beach breaking brilliant blue waters. But to me, it is a forest in the fog. We were high on Rich Mountain, a long mountain ridge in the western Ouachitas, an ancient range that runs from east to west in western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma.
Most of my blog posts thusfar have focused on the biodiversity of my home state, Texas. But for this one we take a journey to our neighbors to the north. I first visited the Ouachitas over 15 years ago on a backpacking trip with a college friend. We hiked the first leg of the Ouachita Trail, and I was instantly hooked. I have made many trips since. Most of these have focused on finding the Ringed Salamander (Ambystoma annulatum), an enigmatic, elusive salamander endemic to the Interior Highlands. As Carolina and I set out from the Pineywoods of East Texas this late September day, I thought back on these trips, and how, despite my considerable efforts, I had still yet to see an adult Ringed Salamander.
We made our camp on Rich Mountain near a sign warning of bear activity in the area. I have read that American Black Bear populations in the Ouachitas were increasing, but I wondered how often encounters occur. Later this very trip we would come to find a large pile of scat that we both believed to be from a bear, complete with a long red cord from someone’s garbage.
The north-facing slopes of Rich Mountain harbor lush, rich forests not unlike those further east in the southern Appalachians. Here a diverse canopy of oaks, maples, hickories, basswood and Cucumber Magnolia towers above an understory of pawpaws, redbuds, and dogwoods. Familiar Appalachian plants like Jewelweed, False Solomon’s Seal and Rattlesnake Root line the roadsides that wind up the mountainside and a lush carpet of ferns flanks the numerous small streams and springs that run from the rocky hillsides.
These forests are home to a diversity of salamanders, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. One such Ouachita endemic is the Rich Mountain Salamander (Plethodon ouachitae), of which we found many. This species has three distinct variations, one on Rich Mountain, one on Winding Stair Mountain, and one on Kiamichi Mountain. Pictured here is the Rich Mountain variant, which I find to be the most attractive. We would also find several Winding Stair Mountain variants before the trip was over, but I neglected to photograph them. Recent rains and orthographic lift events created perfect damp conditions for salamanders, and nearby we also found Southern Redback Salamanders, Western Slimy Salamanders, Many-ribbed Salamanders, and Ouachita Dusky Salamanders.
There are a number of salamander species endemic to only certain isolated portions of the Ouachita Mountains. These include, along with the Rich Mountain Salamander, the Fourche Mountain Salamander and the Caddo Mountain Salamander. I did not have the opportunity to photograph the latter two this trip, though I hope to return to do so in the near future. This type of isolated endemism is common in older mountain ranges like the Ouachitas and southern Appalachians, where one species may occupy only a single mountaintop. Millions of years ago, when the mountains were higher and the climate cooler, a wide expanse of habitat created which allowed salamanders to thrive over expansive ranges. But as time wore on, these mountains weathered and the climate warmed. Broad dry valleys formed between peaks, in essence creating islands of populations on the portions of higher peaks where suitable habitat remained. These populations were now unable to access one another and as a result gene flow between populations was interrupted. As a result what was once a larger population slowly began to evolve into separate, distinct species in isolation.
From the top of Rich Mountain, in the evening after the day’s fog has burned up, it’s possible to see for miles and miles in every direction. The distant peaks and valleys looked like some turbulent undulating sea. Caro and I spent our evenings here, basking on warm rocks as the sun dipped low in the distance. Here we bid farewell to the day before returning to camp to prepare dinner and recover from our wanderings.
On the highest, most exposed ridges of Rich Mountain, a forest of gnarled, stunted dwarfs occurs. Here White Oaks, Black Tupelos, and hickories which may tower 100 feet or more in the rich valleys at the base of the mountains, occur in miniature. These old growth forests contain trees, like those pictured below, that are hundreds of years old but may only reach 10-20 feet in height. Their growth is stunted due to a variety of factors, including the exposure to relentless winds, winter ice storms, and frequent fogs. In some areas two-hundred year old White Oaks were only six or seven feet tall, and occurred in extremely dense thickets that seemed reminiscent of blueberry thickets in the Far North. These peculiar miniature forests we noted by early travelers to the region, including Thomas Nuttall.
Though still early in the season, fall colors were beginning to show at the higher elevations. The classic fall-blooming goldenrods were out in force, and Black Tupelo, Sassafrass, and even some hickories had begun to display their fall foliage.
The Ouachita Mountians have a lot to offer, and we enjoyed taking in all that we could. The real reason for the trip, however, was to try and find an adult Ringed Salamander – something I had failed to do during many previous fall trips. Unlike most members of the family Ambystomatidae, which breed during the first warm rains of late winter and early spring, the Ringed Salamander breeds in the fall, similar to the Marbled Salamander. However where the Marbled Salamander breeds and deposits its eggs on land, Ringed Salamanders breed and lay eggs in the water – for the most part, at least. I have observed on a few occasions, Ringed Salamander eggs laid under leaves and logs in dry pool basins. While previous trips had turned up thousands of larvae and eggs, the adults continued to allude me.
The Ringed Salamander is one of our most enigmatic salamander species, and in my opinion one of our most beautiful. Despite being abundant in some areas within its narrow range in the Interior Highlands, which include the Ozark Plateau and Ouachita Mountains, it is extremely difficult to observe, with very brief periods of surface activity in the fall and spring. They emerge en masse following heavy fall rains and migrate to their breeding ponds. It seems like they leave the ponds very quickly after mating, and quickly return below ground. In some areas there are also breeding events in the spring, though often on a much smaller scale.
When we arrived in Ringed Salamander country there were still puddles on the ground, which I took to be a good sign. We went directly to the first of the breeding ponds, nestled deep in the woods. Wandering to the pond I wondered how these large amphibians survive here. It is not a rich, moist forest like those caudate-rich slopes of the southern Appalachians and elsewhere in the Ouachitas, but rather a rocky, dry woodland of shortleaf pine and various oaks that seemed to send its rainwater to the heart of the mountain just as soon as it hit the ground.
There were some interesting wildflowers blooming in the area. Beyond the goldenrods and asters I spotted this lovely Appalachian Blazing Star (Liatris squarrulosa) and watched as dozens of pollinators visited over a few minutes.
I had high hopes as we set about exploring the first pond. There were recently laid eggs in the water – a good sign. Carolina and I split up and scoured the area. Under a large, flat rock that looked perfect for a salamander, I spotted a large, breathtaking Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). These pit vipers are common throughout much of their range, but that does nothing to diminish their beauty, which is hard to beat. It is hard for me to imagine wanting to kill such a beautiful thing, but unfortunately it is an all too common occurrence. This snake showed no aggression toward me, but rather spent its time trying to escape. I placed it for a moment on top of the rock under which it was sheltering, and after a few quick photos guided it back to its entrance and it quickly disappeared once more.
We continued searching around the pond for what must have been an hour when I heard Caro call out “I got one!!” I was overwhelmed with excitement and sprinted toward her, nearly tripping over several boulders in the process. When I arrived, however, she looked disappointed. She showed me a small male that was at death’s door. It had lost nearly all color and its eyes had clouded over. Barely able to move, it was not long for this world. Seeing my first adult Ringed Salamander in this condition certainly put a damper on the mood. We left the pond, with the hope that the next might prove more fruitful.
We visited four more ponds, all with the same result. Many with eggs but not an adult in sight. My spirits were sinking fast, and a familiar sense of failure that I had experienced in all my previous trips to the region was starting to take hold. I try to remain positive in these moments, and think on all of the wonderful gifts the trip had already provided. But our day was not done. We went to one final pond. It did not look as promising as the previous sites, but I did not intend to leave any stone un-turned, so to speak. So I scoured the area to no avail. Before leaving I peered under a long log that stretched from the pond’s surface about 20 feet or so up the slope that graded into the water. I immediately saw a loose cluster of eggs beneath the log at the waters edge. I then turned my attention up-slope to the opposite end of the log. Nothing. But just as I was preparing to set the log back I noticed a series of bands of yellow and black just beneath the murky water’s surface. It was a tail. I had finally found an adult Ringed Salamander.
It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful sight. Though its colors are more similar to Spotted and Tiger Salamanders, the Ringed Salamander is actually more closely related to Smallmouth and Flatwoods Salamanders, as evidenced by its smaller head and mouth. They can grow quite large, and this female was over seven inches long. Ringed Salamanders breed in ephemeral depressions and fishless ponds. I have even read speculation that they once bred in large “buffalo wallows”. I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at this claim, but considering that some believe that the Ouachitas were named for a Choctaw phrase meaning “country of large buffaloes” in response to the herds of American Bison that roamed the surrounding valleys, perhaps the concept is not so far-fetched after all.
This beautiful female would be the only individual that we would see. There were more ponds I had hoped to visit but the road soon became impassable. It was a very special encounter for me. Finding this species takes a concentrated, planned effort, and in this region it seems to be restricted to remote, difficult to access locations. Perhaps these are the factors that contribute to the allure of the Ringed Salamander, or perhaps its the magic of the Ouachitas. Whatever it may be, finally encountering this species, along with the many other special moments we experienced during the weekend, left me with many fond memories that I will cherish forever.