A Word from the Watershed: Searching for the Pacific Giant Salamander

By Sye Laird, Vice Chair of UNWC

Five years ago, backpacking in southern Oregon, I first heard the name Pacific giant salamander. My friend told me Dicamptodon tenebrosus can grow up to thirteen inches long, are one of the largest terrestrial salamanders in the world, and live in and around cold streams. They are beautiful and elusive, with a purplish brown marbled look. They expanded in my imagination, morphed into gila-lizard-huge amphibians, and I was perplexed that I had never seen or heard of one even though I grew up exploring the wet woods of the Northwest. I did not find any on that trip, but I thought about them so much they crept into my sleep.

In my dream, I met two Pacific giant salamanders in a narrow creek. It was a smaller version of Rock Creek, and because this was a dream, they were talking salamanders. They told me they lived in one single 100 foot stretch of creek their whole lives. They loved their home and wouldn’t leave it, and they also thought long and hard about the meaning of life and the importance of place.

A few years after my initial fascination with these amphibians, I resigned myself to the reality that I may never see a Pacific giant salamander (or PGS henceforth) outside of my own dream world. Then my brother and his family came to visit.

We were down at Rock Creek, floating on floaties, looking at crawdads, enjoying the perfectly cool water on a hot August day. My sister-in-law walked over and told us she’d just seen the biggest snake in her life. She is not a fan of exploring the beauties of snakes, but a few of us were intrigued and went to the spot she pointed out.

Photo by Sye Laird

I was thrilled and surprised and a bit appalled at what I found. The snake, probably a northwestern garter, was big. But what made it look so big was not its own size, but the size of the PGS caught in its jaws.

A PGS! I thought, and probably exclaimed aloud. The first time I see a PGS it’s caught in a snake’s jaws?! It wasn’t as large as I imagined, maybe six inches long plus a tail. It was a muddy purple with a black camouflage pattern. The snake had only the PGS’s head captured, and it was still alive but barely moving. The garter seemed annoyed at our presence, loud exclamations, and all around excitement. It gingerly tried to back into the tall grass, but the mouthful of PGS made it difficult.

We took turns watching the drama. For about two hours, we studied the snake slowly work the PGS’s head down its gullet. The edges of the snake’s mouth appeared to be bleeding from the stretching required. At some point during these first two hours, the PGS stopped moving.

Most of the family left the creek as the evening wore on, including myself, assuming that the feast would take all night. My dad stayed and watched, quietly without disturbing the process like the rest of us had. He came up only a half hour later, saying that once the snake got past the first set of legs, the rest went quickly. And there was no sign of a salamander shape inside the snake’s body. No outline of a reptile inside a reptile.

Dicamptodon tenebrosus, Wikimedia Commons

After this incident, I wanted to learn more. PGS larvae breathe through gills, living in water until their second summer when they’re about six inches long. They spend most of their adult life in rocky wet areas near streams. Some members of the species remain aquatic because they fail to metamorphose completely (called “neoteny”). Dicamptodons are our only salamander with a voice, described as a bark or a rattle. They eat a large number of insects, crayfish, and fish eggs, but a larger volume of terrestrial animals like mice, garter snakes, and other salamanders. Their predators include small river mammals and, yes, sometimes garter snakes. Why are they so uncommon to see? Salamanders, it turns out, are primarily nocturnal for protection purposes. The rough- skinned newt (with the orange belly) is our most commonly seen salamander because it protects itself with deadly skin toxins and therefore is out and about during the day.

There are a few things we can do to support salamander populations, which are sensitive to declines in our watershed health.

  1. Reduce stream erosion: PGSs hole up in rock crevices in our stream beds, but can’t 
survive in mud-filled streams often caused by erosion. 

  2. Reduce chemical use: because of their permeable skin, salamanders are susceptible 
to toxins like herbicides and other contaminants. 

  3. Support beaver habitat: wetlands managed by beaver boost salamander populations. 

Near my home, beavers returned to an old dam site, and the volume of rough-skinned newts breeding in the ponds this year was extraordinary.

Next time you have a chance to walk in the woods at dusk or dawn, try sitting still for awhile, watch for salamanders moving slowly, and listen for the yelp or rattle of the Pacific giant salamander.

Resources: Cascade-Olympic Natural History, Daniel Mathews https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Dicamptodon_tenebrosus/

            Due to the financial impacts COVID-19 has had on state and federal grant funding, the Upper Nehalem Watershed Council must adjust the budget. This means less paid time to research and write A Word from the Watershed. Thank you to Sye Laird for volunteering to write this month’s column which helps us maintain a consistent presence. Do you have a topic or story about our watershed that you want to discuss? Volunteer to write about it for our column! For more details about the UNWC or to sign up contact us at (503) 429-0869, Maggie@nehalem.org or visit unwc.nehalem.org.

Originally published on 7.2.2020 in Vernonia’s Voice.