James Jones pulls onto the gravel edge of a road near Camanche Reservoir and clicks off the engine of his truck. He is dressed in heavy boots and water-repellent overalls, ready for work that may get wet and grimy.
Carrying an orange bucket loaded with gear, the biologist strides across winter-browned grass toward a pond encircled by a low barrier of aluminum.
Along the metallic barrier, every few steps, are traps — plastic canisters set a foot or so into the ground. Jones anticipates that the traps, at least some of them, will hold small creatures of seclusion and secrecy: California Tiger Salamanders.
Few people in the Lodi area and the nearby foothills have ever seen a salamander. But they are here, almost always hidden.
Hidden, that is, until the rains begin to fall.
Then, salamanders emerge from their burrows, usually at night, and search for ponds.
And, more important, they search for partners. Now, as the earth grows soggy and the skies gray, it is mating time for the salamander.
Jones is among a small corps of researchers in California trying to understand and help the salamanders, which face an uncertain future. In the valley and foothills, they are a federally threatened species. In other regions of the state, they are endangered.
At the pond, the shiny barrier blocks the salamanders heading for the water. They follow the metal until they find an opening, enter the opening, and drop, unscathed, into one of the traps.
Jones carefully removes the lid from the first trap and peers down, hopeful.
Only in California
As its name implies, the California Tiger Salamander, often referred to as CTS, is found only in the Golden State. It is typically five to seven inches long and can live for up to 15 years.
Like frogs and newts, salamanders are amphibians, from the Greek for “two lives.” They exist in both water and land. The arboreal salamander, found on the California coast, lives only in trees.
In some ancient societies, salamanders were attributed occult or magical qualities. They can regrow a severed limb or tail. Most are poisonous, and in ancient folklore it was thought that if a salamander fell into the well, the water was permanently poisoned.
In Europe, salamanders are often found in rotting logs. In the Middle Ages, when the logs were brought inside and burned, salamanders would sometimes emerge, giving rise to the notion they were supernatural, born of flame.
Devoted to wild creatures
The pond near Camanche is a model of sorts. Jones designed the pond especially to accommodate the rain-triggered mating rituals of the salamander. It has gentle slopes to allow the creatures to easily enter and leave.
The pond is near squirrel burrows, the preferred home of the salamander. And it dries up in the spring and summer months, vanquishing predators such as bullfrogs that might prevail in a year-round pond.
Since it was created in 2009, the pond has proven a clear success: this year alone, 91 salamanders have been trapped there, though some may be what Jones calls “recaptures.”
“When people are trying to build mating habitat for the CTS now, they go visit James,” said Rick Kuyper, chief of the Sierra Cascades Division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. “His work has been outstanding.”
Bearded and soft-spoken, Jones has been a biologist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District for 22 years. He attended Humboldt State University, as did his wife, Melanie.
He is patient and methodical, and devoted: This time of year he often gives up nights, weekends and even holidays to tend the salamander traps. Usually he does so on his own, but from time to time, he is joined by one or both of his children, Brianna and William. Brianna is at the University of Nevada, Reno, and William attends Humboldt State University. Both are pursuing wildlife-related majors.
Jones is trying to establish a baseline for the salamander population on East Bay’s foothill lands, nearly 28,000 acres. Over time, his work, he hopes, will help set the foundation for protecting and preserving the species.
California Tiger Salamanders are a curious lot. They live for months or even years underground, out of sight. They emerge when rains fall and make their way to ponds that might be up to a mile away.
The males are the first to show up, eager to find a mate and perhaps jostle for position. Females arrive later, when the pond is fuller.
And the magic ensues.
It doesn’t always work out just right. A few years ago, a startled visitor found a wayward salamander crawling around on the floor of a restroom at the Lake Camanche marina, presumably looking for a mate.
Instead of crawling out to a watery rendezvous, some female salamanders prefer to remain in the comfort of their burrows. They may go a year or two, or even three, without breeding.
Many who who have hiked or fished for years in the Central Valley and foothills have never seen a salamander.
“Not many people are out here on a rainy winter night,” Jones said.
Asked what most people would find most surprising about the CTS, Jones quickly replied: “That they are even here.”
Squished and entombed
They are here, but for how long is anyone’s guess.
They are besieged on several fronts. Though the body of the salamander is toxic, there are predators.
“We’ve heard from people finding bodies of decapitated salamanders in fair numbers and wondering why. The speculation is that raccoons or skunks somehow know the bodies are toxic, so they just eat the heads, which are not,” Kuyper said.
Pesticides used to kill ground squirrels may be harming salamanders. Some wind up as roadkill, squished on roadways on their way to reproduce.
As housing tracts and shopping centers rise, many salamanders have been entombed, their ponds destroyed.
Non-native species, such as bullfrogs, devour salamander larvae.
They are also imperiled by out-of-state kin brought to the Salinas area years ago as fishing bait. Some of those salamanders escaped and bred with natives, creating a bigger, bullying hybrid that in several areas threatens to crowd out the CTS.
Though the CTS eat mainly worms and insects, there is also evidence that they are cannibalistic. Where and why they may consume one another isn’t clear.
Much about the life of the CTS, in fact, isn’t known.
How do they know when to emerge from their burrows?
How do they choose mates?
Do they have any social or family structure of any kind?
Why do they breed some years and not others?
And what do they do in those burrows? Are they somewhat dormant, snoozing away, or are they active?
“The bottom line, really, is that we still don’t know much about them,” Kuyper said.
To gain insights into the subterranean life of the CTS, one researcher dug dirt away to expose a burrow. Among the observations: He found salamanders harmlessly crawling over baby squirrels.
Munching a cricket
As he circles the pond, Jones checks three of the traps. There is some random muck, which he yanks out. Otherwise, nothing.
At the fourth trap, though, he looks down and pauses.
“There we go.”
With great care, he extracts the salamander. Males have bigger tails than females and have swollen cloacas, used for reproduction.
This one is a female. Because of her position in the trap, Jones knows she has completed her journey into the pond and now wants to go home to her burrow.
Using the tools in his orange bucket, Jones carefully measures her, weighs her, and takes a photo.
Back at his office in Lodi, he will add this photo to a gallery of specimens on a special computer program. Based on a physical analysis, the program creates an individual profile for each salamander. It will allow Jones to build a database showing precisely where each salamander was trapped, when, and whether it has moved from pond to pond. This way, he will know if the salamander is a fresh specimen or a recapture.
Jones scans the slope next to the pond. He finds a burrow, places the salamander at the opening, and she crawls in.
Why is it so important to save the California salamander? They are a hidden but vital part of the natural world of California, Kuyper said, a native species that reflects the health of its grassy or woodland environment.
“They are part of the web of life in California, which is a special place in part because of the diversity of its species,” he said. “It’s important to maintain that diversity in part because so many of the species are interdependent.”
Mocha and cream
Jones drives to another pond, perhaps a mile away from the first, tucked into a swale next to an orchard.
(Salamanders have been found in 13 ponds on EBMUD lands, but due to limited resources there is active trapping in only three. Jones prefers that specific locations not be mentioned to prevent tampering or vandalism.)
Again, after a few empty traps, success. It is a male, and he is in the middle of munching a cricket for lunch. His position in the trap shows he was headed to the pond when he dropped into the enclosure.
Jones lifts the fellow from the trap. To hold a salamander, as Jones does, is to hold a creature both subtle and wondrous. Their bodies are a deep mocha, dappled with creamy spots. Their frames are elastic, even rubbery.
“If you live your life in a hole, you have to be able to turn around,” Jones says.
Though salamanders look slick and moist, they are smooth and dry; more soft leather than wet plastic. Their faces are benign, even pleasant, with pop-up eyes and a mouth arced into what seems like a smile.
Some say they look like Muppets.
Salamanders have been on earth, by rough estimates, for 250 million years. They have adapted and survived, emerging from fire, living under the earth and in water.
They are largely invisible, and many of their secrets endure.
Weighed and measured, the salamander is set down in shallow water at the edge of the pond.
With a few pushes with its webbed feet, and a swish of its tail, it is gone.