Grey and windy day today, but it's summer and still really dry, so I spent my moring having a slow cup of coffee and watering our plants. While I was moving plants and furniture I uncovered this charming little one living under our table outside.
It's a California Slender Salamander (Batrachoceps attenuatus). Check out it's short little arms and legs (four digits on each if you want to get really close). Like earthworms these animals breathe through their skin, which is why they hang out in moist environments, like the rotting wood on the underside of our table. If their skin dries out, they'll suffocate. They manage to survive the hot (or at least dry) months here by estivating, a sort of summer hibernation, where their metabolism and activity slow way down.
Having such absorbent skin makes amphibians extremely sensitive to even low concentrations of chemicals. All over the world amphibian populations are crashing, and while the exact causes are still unclear, pesticide exposure seems to be a significant contributing factor. I know when a lot of people think about pesticide exposure, they think of huge farms in the Central Valley (or wherever the large farming communities are where you live), but home pesticide use is greater (up to 10 times more per acre) than agricultural use. The pesticides and herbicides that you can buy at the store are serious chemicals and should be treated as such. Besides being dangerous for the critters in your backyard, they can be washed into waterways by rain and even transported in fog, impacting organisms far beyond the boundaries of your yard. So for heavens sake, be careful with those chemicals. Better yet, don't use them at all. Garden organically. You know it's a good idea.
This morning was not the first time that I've seen a salamander at our house. I remember the first time I saw one in our basement. I was shocked to find such a moisture-loving animal right smack in the middle of the city, in my house no less. Then I saw this map, and it started to make a little more sense. Today we are living in a houseboat on a concrete lake. But as recently as 200 years ago the land my house is on (18th between Mission and Valencia) was the middle of a pretty good sized body of water. My area of the Mission had lakes and streams and, I can only assume, all of the plants and animals that make up riparian communities. Somehow, incredibly, some of them have managed to hang on. That's pretty freaking incredible. Even surrounded by all this stuff, water and the living things that depend on it is never very far away, for me or for anyone else.
Our friendly local organic demonstration garden
San Francisco Watershed finder