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The seldom seen: Ensatina salamanders

Land of Four Seasons

On a misty Tehachapi night, following rain earlier in the day, a small creature emerges from a hiding spot beneath a large toppled bark section, which is lying half-buried in leaf litter beside a fallen tree trunk.

The little amphibian surveys its damp surroundings, as water droplets cling to the green grass. A Tehachapi Mountains native, it has large dark eyes, a mouth that seems slightly upturned in a pleasant grin, and appears to be wearing a tiny full body wetsuit decorated with splotches of yellow. This shy, innocuous animal is a Yellow-blotched Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater).

Ensatina salamanders are very quiet, slow-moving amphibians that rely on their cryptic markings and secretive ways to protect them from would-be predators. Although their irregular yellow spots might seem to call attention to them, these patches actually closely match the colored splotches of Xanthoria (Sunburst Lichen) and other lichen species often found dotting the surfaces of decaying wood on the ground where Ensatina salamanders are typically found.

Though there are some species of salamanders that are strong and robust, Ensatinas are not among them. Yellow-blotched Ensatinas are delicate, more like an amphibian version of the reptilian Desert Banded Gecko, which is also small, gentle, and secretive.

Yellow-blotched Ensatinas can be found in forests and woodlands where there are lots of fallen logs or woody debris for them to hide. They like north-facing slopes, especially near streams and seasonal creeks.

However, unlike most amphibians, including our native Pacific Chorus Frogs and California Toads, Ensatinas do not have a tadpole phase, so they don't need standing water.

Instead, a female Ensatina lays about 10-12 eggs at the end of the rainy season in April or May, which she then guards until they hatch, which can take four months or more. Then hatchlings emerge as miniature versions of the adults. The baby salamanders may continue to stay by their mother's side for weeks after they hatch, until there are favorable conditions to disperse, like when the rains of autumn arrive.

An Ensatina's fondness for damp conditions is not just a preference, it is a necessity: they don't have lungs, but rather breathe through their skin and the lining of their mouth. So they will die if they dry out, and they are restricted to moist environments and high humidity conditions.

Patience seems to be an inherent part of the Ensatina's life, as they wait for conditions to be favorable. It evidently works well for them, since they can continue their slow-paced life for as long as 15 years.

Yellow-blotched Ensatinas are able to make use of irrigated habitats, and I have found them living in the yards of outlying homes, where large patches of fairly low-growing and dense evergreen shrubs like rosemary and lavender had made extensive sheltered areas that retained some moisture year-round.

Ensatinas have long sticky tongues like frogs, which they use to draw in small invertebrates like larva, beetles, worms, spiders, sow bugs, etc. They couldn't capture or do battle with anything that's very formidable.

While they don't have any sharp teeth, claws or stinger of any kind, gentle Ensatinas are not entirely defenseless: when threatened, they can exude a noxious milky liquid from their tail, which may repel a predator. The name "Ensatina" apparently means "small sword," and was inspired by the way these salamanders raise their tail like brandishing a sword when threatened.

Like lizards, Ensatinas can also detach their tail, which is slightly constricted where it joins the body, and their self-severed tail will continue move and distract a predator while the Ensatina makes a slow crawling escape.

Yellow-blotched Ensatinas are endemic to California, meaning they are only found here, but more specifically, their range is almost entirely within Kern County, including areas like the Tehachapi Mountains, Kern River Canyon, the Paiute Mountains, Breckenridge Mountain, the Fort Tejon area, etc.

Jon Hammond.

Ensatina salamanders don't have lungs, and breathe through their skin, which must stay moist. You can see how the tail is slightly constricted where it joins the body.

Interestingly, Yellow-blotched Ensatinas are one of seven subspecies of Ensatina eschscholtzii found in California. Though they are related, all seven subspecies are noticeably different from each other, and are apparently descended from one ancestor that is gradually turning into different species.

While there are many of them here, you can easily live a long time in the Tehachapi Mountains without ever coming across a Yellow-blotched Ensatina. The clandestine lifestyle of these little salamanders, hidden among the leaf litter, duff and debris beneath oaks, pines, other woodland trees and boulder outcroppings, means that they are seldom seen.

But you might encounter one someday. And even though I don't see them often, I'm glad to know that they are going about their quiet lives in the shady, protected areas of the Kern County mountains and canyons.

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at [email protected].