The Northwestern Brown Salamander

NWBrownMushYou’d think an amphibian exceeding eight inches in length, common enough to be found from California to Alaska, and hardy enough to live in elevations from sea level to eight or ten thousand feet would be a familiar sight.  But this is definitely not the case with the Northwestern Brown Salamander.  Not that salamanders are the easiest creatures in the world to find in the first place.  Any animal that likes dark damp places is one that normally escapes notice until the intrepid collector goes deliberately looking.  But the Northwestern Brown belongs to an especially secretive family of salamanders called the Ambystomatidae – the Mole Salamanders.  As the name obviously implies they live like moles, spending the majority of their lives underground coming up into world of light only to breed and even then only during certain times of the year.  Even that is not a reliable indicator since breeding behavior is dependent on weather conditions still not clearly understood.

I was first introduced to this fascinating amphibian while searching for acreage in which to build our long sought for dream home.  Two decades plus of military life rolling around the world had left my wife and I with a pent up desire for a bit of land and a home of our own.  I cannot recall how many different properties we looked at.  Every one, however, had some drawback (usually the price tag) that kept us on the hunt.  One day in October we stumbled upon ten acresthat seemed about right; a bit expensive, but the location and geography were perfect.  As I walked around near the bottom slope of the heavily treed place I kicked over of a decaying cedar stump and was greeted by a startling yet welcome sight – a large, dark brown salamander.  The big guy arched his back and turned sideways to me as though trying to exaggerate his size.  I’m sure the creature was telling me to go away, but I took it as a sign that we’d found the place to build our dream home.  And so we did.  I was careful, however, to make sure that the habitat of my amphibian greeting committee was left undisturbed.  That bit of consideration must have paid off because we now have a breeding population of Northwestern Browns around the house.

Mole salamanders are a distinctly New World amphibian.  The Amphstomid family includes our largest and most colorful salamanders, the tiger salamanders and the Pacific Giant Salamander.  They are not monsters like the Mudpuppys or Hellbenders, but a foot long newt is nothing to ignore either.  The Northwestern Brown does not hit the one foot mark, but I suspect there are some out there even larger than the specimen I found which exceeded eight inches.  They are stout bodied, robust looking fellows and that does contribute to their appearance of great size.  The large paratoid glands that swell like turnips from just behind their eyes also contribute to their lumpy, oversized physique.  According to many sources these glands secrete a mildly poisonous substance that causes at least irritation to humans.  The standard phrase is “sticky white poison that causes irritation.”  While I believe that this is likely true, I cannot attest to the observation.  I have handled many salamanders and toads yet never once experience the slightest symptom.  In several authoritative sources I have also read that these caudates raise their tails, close their eyes when annoyed, and then secrete from the paratoid glands.  While I have witnessed this behavior in other salamanders I’ve not seen it in the Northwestern Brown.  My specimen is apparently possessed of a pretty docile nature.  Whatever the case it is best to handle the creature as seldom as possible not only for your safety, but especially for the salamander.

 Like a number of its family cousins the Northwestern Brown sometimes displays an interesting caudate version of “eternal youth.”  Neoteny is a term used to describe a condition peculiar to several caudates that, for some reason, never develop into adults and remain in a permanent larval stage.  Despite their youthful appearance, however, neotenics, do develop the ability to breed.  This lifetime larval condition is probably a reaction to excessively cold weather or other weather conditions.  Perhaps it is an adaptation of another kind; an advantage to have the ability to breed in two different physical forms.  When breeding does occur the result is a surprisingly large and clear gelatinous mass in which dozens of eggs are suspended.  The young emerge as tiny salamanders with very noticeable gills.

As expected worms rate high on the Northwestern Brown salamander menu, but this big guy will probably gobble up anything small enough to fit into its sizable mouth.  For this reason they are not difficult animals to keep as pets.  You may want to think about capturing and keeping one, though.  Remember that bit about being named after moles?  Your caudate friend will spend much time buried under whatever substrate it can find.  There are exceptions, however, including the one I have right now.  He seems to come out quite often.  I recommend keeping the temperature cool, someplace in the 50 to 65 degree range.  Larvae can be found by netting the shoreline of a marsh or other still waters.  Adults, due to their secretive ways are a bit harder to find and require a great deal of work turning over logs and debris.  When weather conditions trigger breeding behavior, however, you might just find one walking about looking for some salamander style romance.

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