It may look like an earthworm but Batrachoseps attenuates is a miniscule salamander with idiosyncrasies. Two-thirds of its total 2 ½” to 5 ½” length is tail. Its tiny head is narrow and its brown skin is deeply grooved between the ribs, thus completing the earthworm disguise. Unlike an earthworm, they have bulging, front-facing eyes, tiny arms and legs, and a tooth-filled mouth. Batrachoseps are lungless and breathe through their thin moist skin. Unlike other salamanders they have four toes instead of five on each foot. The slander salamander ranges from Washington to Baja California, preferring cool, moist woodlands, oak or conifer, with deep leaf litter and decomposing wood and bark. However they are not too picky, as they have also been found in urban gardens and roadside greenery and valley grasslands. What is essential, especially during the dry season, is a cool moist retreat, often underground in rodent burrows or under rocks or logs. They are usually dormant during the dry season. With such tiny legs, they do not travel far, probably less than six feet from home base. This, along with the fact that they are an ancient lineage suggest what DNA studies have also indicated: What is currently classified as one species, B. attenuatus, has, over time, evolved into 5 or more distinct species by gradually being separated by the building of mountain ranges and the movement of the San Andreas Fault. As scientists learn more, the new species will likely be classified. Batrachoseps can sometimes be found on wet days above ground, but they mostly confine themselves to foraging in the leaf litter, or underground in termite tunnels, earthworm holes and rodent holes. Their forward-looking eyes focus on the prey, which is then snagged with their sticky projective tongue. Prey includes spiders, mites, snails and insects, in addition to earthworms and termites. Little can be said of the sex life of the slender salamander, other than that breeding takes place from December (in the hotter reaches of its range) through January. The females deposit 5 to 20 eggs in subterranean tunnels which may be shared by several females. The eggs are surrounded by capsules connected by strands of jelly; this is presumably to keep them moist for the two months of incubation. There is no aquatic larval phase. The hatched young are miniature adults, although long-legged, short-tailed and big-headed compared to their parents. So what’s the exciting idiosyncrasy? Fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds have large, oval nucleated red blood cells (RBCs). Mammals have small RBCs without a nucleus. Batrachoseps’ red RBCs also lack a nucleus? Why? During its maturation in the bone marrow, a mammalian RBC does have a nucleus (which contains the DNA), but this nucleus is ejected before the RBC is sent into circulation. The nucleated cell is 10x larger than the non-nucleated one, even through the amount of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin is the same. Slender salamanders are extremely small, and it is thought that nucleated RBCs would cause too much friction in the capillaries and possible circulatory problems.
My brother and I filled our terrarium with blue-bellies. These lizards are alert and fast but we had a secret weapon: a fishing pole. We tied one end of fishing line to the final loop on the pole, made a noose and ran the line to the base of the pole. We sneaked up on the lizard from behind, lowered the noose over his head and gently tightened the line. Capture! This method also worked for snakes.
Sceloporus occidentalis, as the Western Fence Lizard is officially known, is a small lizard, less than 8 ½ “ long, with very rough scales on its upper surface. Their background color is light brown with blotches, bands, or ragged brown stripes. Turn the lizard over to see the amazing blue stripes on its belly and throat. Males have the deeper blue, females lighter and juveniles often none at all. During courtship and territorial disputes, the males do pushups to show off their colors. Presumably, deeper blues indicate a stronger, healthier and more virile male. Males fight to defend their territory but we never saw this behavior in our terrarium even though it was crowded with blue-bellies. Maybe this was because none of the males thought it was territory worth fighting for. Also, the terrarium lacked any suitable elevation where a male could do pushups to show off.
Mating occurs March through June, depending on the altitude. Two to four weeks later the female digs a small pit in soft moist soil and lays a clutch of 3 – 17 eggs. She may lay several more clutches. The eggs will hatch in about 60 days, from July to September.
Fence lizards are common and frequently seen, as they are found in many habitats, from forests to grasslands to scrub. They love to bask in the sun in an elevated open place, such as a fence or a rocky outcrop or your woodpile. This makes them an easy target for hawks and snakes, sometimes shrews and kids with fishing poles. Speed and vigilance are their usual defenses, but they can sacrifice their tail if necessary. The tail will twitch after separation, distracting the predator. It takes energy to regrow a tail, so detaching one is not done lightly by the lizard.
They eat bugs and spiders, ticks and scorpions. And they are very valuable in lowering the incidence of Lyme disease in areas where they are found. The bacterium which carries Lyme disease is carried by the western black-legged tick. Very young ticks frequently attach to fence lizards, especially around the mouth. A protein in the lizard’s blood (which the tick ingests) kills the bacterium, so the tick will be disease-free when it infects its next host. Treasure your blue-bellies!
Article by Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley
The other morning, there were 2 alligator lizards basking in the sunlight on a window sill, and another hoping to get out the nearby door. The cat had brought them in. I decided to evict them. Two were sluggish or cooperative, but the other raced around and then hissed at me and bit me as I tried to pick him up. He held on like a pit bull. He had recently lost his tail and was probably not in a good mood. Should you wish to pick one up, grasp it behind the head.
Outside, I saw 5 or 6 within a 40’ stretch of garden. Obviously, previous years were great for alligator lizard survival and reproduction. Unlike many reptiles, alligator lizards are ovoviviparous: after mating, the eggs are retained in the female’s body. Usually there are 2 or 3 eggs. The fetuses get nourishment from the egg yolk. When they are developed, about 2 months after mating, the young “hatch” and are soon born. It will take about 3 years for females to reach sexual maturity.
The young are, about 3” long, thin and have smooth shiny unpatterned light brown skin; they look like small skinks. As adults, alligator lizards can be 10” long, with 6 of that being tail. Their heads are flat and triangular with pointed noses. Behind the eyes, their body slowly and slightly widen, without noticeable neck, until the middle of the abdomen, and then taper gently to the end of the tail. Legs are small and thin. There are 5 fine toes on each foot.
In California, there are two species of alligator lizard. Both can be found in our area. The Northern species (Elgaria coerulea) can be distinguished from the Southern species (Elgaria multicarinata) by eye color and belly striping. Northern has dark eyes and a dark stripes running between the scales. Southern has light eyes and dark stripes on the middle of the scales.
Both are brownish, buff, or olive-brown on top, with darker crossbands. The scales are large, keeled, and slightly shingled. Separating the back from the belly, and running the length of the body from behind the corner of the mouth to the tail is a lateral fold of skin. The belly is usually light gray, and the scales are flat and shiny.
Alligator lizards occupy a variety of habitats, but they prefer moist areas and avoid deserts. Nor do they bask in sunlight in the open, as other lizards do. When they sun, there will be cover very close by. These pugnacious lizards are nice to have in the garden. They eat insects and grubs, snails, ticks, mites and spiders, and millipedes, and sometimes infant rodents.
Eve Broughton was educated at UC. Berkeley and lives in Whitethorn.
In the late fall, as sunshine becomes rare and temperatures drop to freezing, garter snakes make their way to the hibernating den. Hundreds can gather in this hibernaculum, keeping each other warm. As garter snakes are slender and cold-blooded, they lose heat rapidly and this communal sleeping is necessary to conserve heat and fat stores.
Male and female snakes make sex-specific scents (pheromones) in their skin, allowing a snake to follow the trail of another snake. Some males make both scents, and this is an advantage, attracting both males and females to cluster around them in the hibernaculum. These “kleptotherms” also have an advantage in breeding. Maybe because they’re hotter.
Male snakes are smaller than females. In spring, when temperatures warm the hibernaculum, they wake and wander outside to feed and bask in the sunshine, returning at night to the group warmth. Soon, however, they stop feeding and allow their digestion to complete, as mating season is about to begin. When a female awakes and leaves the den, her pheromones attract many males, all trying to mate with her, swarming around her in a mating ball.
The female incubates the young in her lower abdomen for 2 to 3 months, and gives birth to 10 to 30 live young in the late summer. The young, 6 to 10 inches long, shed their skin and begin to hunt on their own, seeking earthworms, invertebrates, small fish and tadpoles . Living on a ridge, I see many small garter snakes at this time; the birthing chamber must be nearby. Sometimes, females mate again in the fall, and store the sperm until the spring to begin another fertilization and incubation.
Garter snakes are usually 2 to 3 feet long, brownish in overall color, with lengthwise stripes of several colors: red, yellow, white or beige. In between the stripes are rows of dark blotches. The snakes are active during the day, using their eyes to spot prey and their tongue to sense taste and smell. They can also sense ground vibrations.
We usually associate garter snakes with streams and their favorite food, frogs, but they are generalist carnivores, eating earthworms, fish, lizards, slugs, ants, and small rodents. Some species are immune to the toxin in newt skins and eat them too. The prey is swallowed alive.
Garter snakes have a mild neurotoxic venom, which is produced in small amounts, and delivered via some larger teeth in the rear of the mouth during the chewing – swallowing process. So unless the garter snake tries to swallow your finger, you have little chance of getting poisoned.
Predators of garter snakes include king snakes, kestrels and kites, harrier and hawks, mink and raccoon, opossum and skunk, and domestic cats. A garter snake will coil and strike to protect itself, although the usual reaction to a threat is to hide its head and shake its tail. It will also release a nasty-smelling juice from a cloacal gland.
Written by Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley
As youngsters, my brother and I had a terrarium built by an enterprising neighbor who had invented a fly trap which collected live flies. On a family camping trip to the High Sierras, we collected lots of fence lizards (and live flies to feed them), and then, the big prize, a juvenile gopher snake. The morning after we put the snake in the terrarium with the lizards, disaster struck. The snake, which probably thought it had been put in heaven, was caught swallowing a lizard. How could it do such a terrible thing?! I guess we forgot that snakes eat live prey. Snake was immediately banished from heaven.
At first glance, a gopher snake could be mistaken for a rattlesnake. Both snakes share a light brown background color with a series of darker brown to black blotches along the center. In the diamond-back rattlesnake, these blotches are surrounded by white stripes, creating the diamond pattern. There is no white on the gopher snake. Instead, below the center blotches on the sides are smaller dark spots in a variety of shapes. The rattlesnake’s tail pattern is a series of black and white stripes whereas the gopher snake’s is light brown with small dark spots.
The visual mimicry is also accompanied by behavioral mimicry. The rattlesnake has a large triangular head whereas the gopher snake’s head is more rectangular and thinner, although when threatened, it will flatten its head into a more triangular shape. It will also puff up its body, coil into the familiar rattlesnake strike pose, shake its tail (no rattles here, though) and hiss menacingly. If the gopher snake does strike, it will do so with a closed mouth. For all this threatening behavior, the gopher snake is not poisonous.
Gopher snakes are fairly large: 2 ½ to 7 feet in length. Even hatchlings can be 20” long. In spring, males engage in ritual combat, wrapped around each other. The winner mates with the female. Sometime between June and late August the female will lay a clutch of 12 to 14 eggs. These incubate 8 to 10 weeks before hatching.
The Pacific Gopher Snake lives 12-15 years in the wild, feeding every ten days on small mammals, birds, eggs, lizards and frogs. (We should have known this before we put the snake in with the lizards!) They often hunt during the day, although they may be active at night during very hot weather.
Pacific gopher snakes range from Canada to Mexico, west of the Cascades and Sierras . They prefer drier open country (deserts, shrublands, grasslands and coniferous forests) to damp, dense forests, and range up to 9000’ in altitude.
Written by Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley.
This summer on a warm August night in Salmon Creek, our daughter spotted what appeared to be a large earthworm crossing the road. Upon closer observation, she realized it was a very small snake unlike any she had seen before. She picked the snake up and carried it home, and to our surprise, it was the snake that was highest on our “life-list” priority for North Coast reptiles – the Sharp-Tailed Snake.
Sharp-Tailed Snakes (Contia tenuis) spend most of their lives in the darkness of a subterranean world hidden safely underground, beneath rocks, or deep plant litter, where it is cool and moist. Their secretive nature and unique habitat requirements make them one of the most rarely observed North Coast reptiles.