HOW MANY SEEPAGE SALAMANDERS HAVE YOU SEEN THIS YEAR?
Steve Bennett and I did not intentionally pick the coldest day so far this fall to go search for salamanders in soggy seeps, but that was the day we went. Steve is the state herpetologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. As amphibians, salamanders are a group of creatures herpetologists study. A seep is a wetland habitat created by groundwater slowly flowing out at the base of a steep bluff.
The cold weather, a bit above freezing, did not bother the salamanders. When we began to find the salamanders, the cold no longer bothered us either. Steve's purpose in visiting seep habitats was to establish their location, develop an inventory of species that depend on them, and eventually help protect these unusual and little-known habitats and their inhabitants. What Steve and I would call a "good seep" is one with year-round muck, visible crawfish mounds, and sphagnum moss margining some of the slightly elevated areas. Little rivulets less than a foot wide and only a few inches deep flow away from the bluff. Accumulations sometimes result in small streams that lead to larger ones. A seep is one of the most serene habitats imaginable, especially on a brisk autumn day. Finding more than 30 salamanders of five species made our day.
Dan Tufford, president of the Columbia Audubon Society, accompanied us. He took water samples while Steve and I looked for salamanders. Dan noted that one bluff we descended to reach a seep was about 40 feet high, thus creating a high, thick bit of terrain through which rain water could percolate. Many of the seeps have stayed wet through recent droughts, indicating that water passing from the high ground above to the base of the bluff below may take months, possibly years.
Seeps are inhabited by a special group of amphibians, the lungless salamanders. Like other vertebrate animals, salamanders breathe by taking in oxygen. They do so primarily through their skin as well as through tissues in the mouth. To do so efficiently, they must stay cool and moist. The water temperature in a seep is cool and stays pretty much the same year-round. The salamanders stay in the mud, wet ground vegetation, or under the soggy logs that are present.
Finding salamanders in seeps is exhilarating. Imagine turning over a log and finding four long, slender yellow salamanders with black stripes. Then turn over the next log to find a bright red salamander that looks like a small hotdog with black spots and a pink belly. We found more than a dozen of each. We also found several dusky salamanders, which are dark gray, a bright yellow two-lined salamander, and one known as the mud salamander. Mud salamanders sometimes have the red-leopard appearance of a red salamander; the two can be distinguished because the latter has yellow irises. The mud salamander has brown ones. Staring down a salamander is not that hard to do, so Steve and I were able to identify the ones we caught.
After Steve took notes on each animal, we released them where we had caught them. This was especially important for one big female red salamander. Red salamanders lay their eggs in the fall under a log or rock, attaching the eggs so that they adhere to the underside. Meanwhile, the female hollows out a little pool beneath the eggs and stays until they hatch. Exactly what the mother protects the eggs from remains a mystery. Parental care exhibited by animals is fascinating, and finding a nest-guarding red salamander was a treat for Steve and me.
Environmental stewardship of our natural habitats, including such unique habitats as seeps, is critical. Fortunately, the seeps we visited are in no immediate danger of disappearing. Two are protected because they are on land owned by a conservation society. The other two are also well protected by being on a large privately owned plantation. Both give the wetland areas known as seeps the full protection they need from the assaults suffered by many other natural areas across the country. Let's hope they stay that way so that others can have the opportunity to visit pristine seeps with salamanders underfoot.