Class Warfare: Reptiles vs Amphibians vs US

In this corner, the Eastern Garter Snake. in the other, a Slimy Salamander.
In this corner, the Eastern Garter Snake. in the other, a Slimy Salamander. CLICK to enlarge.

…and of course in this particular match-up, it is rarely the Class Ampibia that wins. Some larger frogs do eat smaller snakes I suppose, but the best defense for a salamander or a frog is never having to defend itself. No teeth, no claws. Sissy fight.

Some few amphibians are poisonous (arrow poison frogs and fire newts for example.) But their greatest threat is not garter snakes. It’s not even the local good ol’ boys who call them “sprang lizards” and gather then for fish bait. (Shudder.)

Amphibia’s weakest link is that permeable skin. It makes them susceptible to rampant microbes in the present Chytrid outbreak that is decimating the entire Class Amphibia. And they are subject to drying out and other subtle environmental perturbations.

Their short weak legs and vulnerability to drying and predation out in the open make it hard for them to migrate–especially HIGHER to cooler zones on the mountain as the lower forests continually grow warmer and warmer. And when they have gone as high as the mountain goes and it gets warmer still, we lose the Appalachian endemics that have inhabited these valleys since well before the last ice age.

So this single private predation that the dog alerted me to yesterday under the forsythia brings to my mind the larger battle for survival–for the amphibians as a whole–who are harbingers of change to the biology of the planet that is coming far faster than any of us can adapt to.

But hey: we’re just talking about a bunch of fish-bait, aren’t we? We have REAL problems going on in our world and slimy slitheries don’t get a second glance.

They should. As the salamanders go, so goes temperate forest ecology. If you think this is hyperbole, go to this link of the following quote, and I rest my case:

The ultimate reason for doing this study is that we have long asked these three related questions: Why are amphibians important? Why do we care if they survive? And why are we concerned about amphibian conservation at all? Well I would contend that if you have that much biomass and if that biomass is important in forest ecosystems and if you lose it, then something is going to go wrong.

It goes back to this idea of the rivet theory in airplanes: if you start popping rivets out of the wings of an airplane, at some point the wings are going to fall off. Well, I would contend that salamanders represent a whole lot of rivets. If you lose all these salamanders in the Ozarks or at Hubbard Brook or in the Appalachians or in the Shenandoah Mountains, then something is going to happen. There’s no question in my mind, now, that salamanders are really important.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Wow. Who knew. I have seen so few salamanders in all my years on planet Earth. Underground or hiding in the leaf litter; no wonder. Conserve forests on north-east facing slopes and save a lot of salamanders. Harvest the other slopes if you must. The bird article was good, too. Reduce turf, plant bushes: best way to help birds (along with putting bibs on outdoor cats.) Good stuff.