Written by Katie Holzer, City of Gresham Watershed Scientist and Salamander Sleuth
A lot of amazing wildlife calls Beaver Creek home. Some of these animals are expected to live in or near this urban and agricultural creek, like crayfish, great blue herons, treefrogs, and beavers. Others have surprised some of us a bit over the years by living so close to a city, like salmon, eagles, otters, and mountain lions. One rare animal amazed us when we discovered that it was living here right alongside us: the Oregon slender salamander.
In 2008 a team of AmeriCorps volunteers were working with the City of Gresham to restore a natural area along Kelly Creek (a tributary to Beaver Creek) in the city. Looking under the vines someone found something that looked like a worm with tiny legs. When the biologist came over to identify it, she couldn’t believe her eyes: there was an unmistakable tiny salamander that was “supposed” to only live in pristine habitat in the Cascade Mountains!
“…she couldn’t believe her eyes: there was an unmistakable tiny salamander that was “supposed” to only live in pristine habitat in the Cascade Mountains!”
The Oregon slender salamander, also known as Batrachoseps wrighti, is a rare salamander that spends most of its life underground where big legs can get in the way. When the weather is both warm and wet, these salamanders emerge from the dirt and hunt for bugs and slugs under rotting leaves and logs. If one of these salamanders is born under a good rotting log it might never travel beyond that log during its entire lifetime. When scared, these salamanders curl up into a coil to protect themselves.
Hiding Under Our Noses
Before this discovery in Gresham, this salamander was thought to only live up in the cascade mountains and nowhere else in the entire world! It has one of the smallest ranges for any animal species. The Kelly Creek finding spurred other searches that turned up Oregon slender salamanders throughout Gresham in natural areas and backyards. One was even found on Powell Butte in Portland. These salamanders have probably been here for hundreds of years as the cities grew up around them. They are hanging on in little patches of habitat and making homes in people’s yards where they can.
One of the most surprising parts of these searches was the exact locations where we were finding them. Some were in large rotting logs, but there aren’t many of those in Gresham anymore because all of the large trees were harvested about a century ago and the wood was taken away to turn into products that people use rather than being left to rot on the ground. In Gresham, we mostly found the salamanders under piles of rotting leaves, patches of vines on the ground, plywood, and in cinder block walls!
We found salamanders of all sizes, even TINY babies, which shows that they are reproducing here. The vines (mostly English ivy and periwinkle) are recently introduced to this region and are considered “invasive”, but the salamanders seem to enjoy the safety, moisture, and bugs that they provide. Cinderblock walls are also not a “natural” habitat, but they seem to be providing everything the salamanders need.
This whole experience has taught us a lot about what we think we know. For so many animals we assume: “Oh, they can’t live here” for some reason or another, and we are often surprised. These salamanders have been here under our noses long before we realized it, and once we were open and looking for them we found them everywhere. This has taught us not to discount anywhere as possible habitat, and instead try to dig to see what animals might be able to use it, and how.
What You Can Do
If you want to encourage wildlife in your neighborhood, check out the post “What You Can Do for Wildlife” to learn about the weedy edges and messy piles that can be just what an animal needs. Don’t worry, it’s not hard! In fact, it’s often easier than what we usually do. It turns out that we often work hard to make things look a certain way, and the more we “let things go” the more we can often leave space for other animals alongside us.