My Slippery Four-legged Holy Grail

My quest wasn’t quite to the same scale as Sir Lancelots’ quest for the Holy Grail, no Castle Anthrax, no Bridge Of Death, but it did involve a few epic journeys. Deep in the Chilliwack River Valley lives a creature rarely seen, so mysterious it’s made the provincial endangered species red list – it’s not a cute little jugular-severing bunny rabbit, it’s the Pacific Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus).

In British Columbia, the Pacific Giant Salamander faces extensive habitat loss due to timber harvesting and development. The salamander larvae require cold shaded streams with un-silted pools to grow. Even the cleanest logging practices or any disturbance can cause turbidity in the water making it unsuitable for the larvae. Once fully developed, adults don’t roam far from where they’re born making the recovery of this species even more challenging.

Reading almost every research paper discussing the Pacific Giant Salamander population in Chilliwack, resulted in finding a few prime locations where the elusive amphibian is known to live. Using papers written in the mid 90’s with hand drawn maps of where salamanders had been found wasn’t much of a lead, but it was all I had. Two exhausting trips reaching far in to the Chilliwack River Valley, up some incredibly rough logging roads, and pushing through some of the densest under growth I’d ever encountered, resulted in nothing more than an unwanted view of the extensive logging throughout the Chilliwack River Water Shed. It was easy to see how big of an impact logging would have on such a sensitive species. The Pacific Giant Salamander larvae develop in cool, shaded pools of clean flowing water – even the slightest amount of turbidity introduced by logging can make the water uninhabitable by the larva.

Then, after receiving a much-appreciated tip (thanks Hugh), I set out on a third excursion into the Chilliwack River Valley. Along a quiet winding country road, past the turkey vultures in the field, a peaceful stream trickles under the road. After surgically examining the stream and the surrounding undergrowth for quite some time, only a few dozen common Western Red-backed Salamanders were found. Losing hope my intrepid girlfriend and I began to make our way back down the loose scree slope along the stream. Having already fallen once and given myself a wicked purple shiner when the bear spray swung up smacking me in the eye, the second fall was nothing new. However, when I got to my feet and noticed the old rotten tree stump I had fallen over was home to the Holy Grail, I was beyond ecstatic.

I carefully scooped up the endangered gem and handed it off to my ever so helpful girlfriend while I setup the camera. Having photographed many other species of salamanders and newts already, the most interesting characteristic of the Pacific Giant Salamander is its colouration. The mottled orange-brown and black pattern covering its dorsal are truly unique. Oh, and it’s huge! This individual wasn’t the giant I’d been searching for; at only 11cm long it still had some growing to do, but even at such size its physiology just screams giant. It was also full of energy. Most other salamanders I’ve encountered are slow moving methodical animals – this species is the total opposite, constantly moving and very quick at times. The Pacific Giant Salamander is known to prey upon mice, shrews, and anything else it can overpower and fit in its mouth, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it also packs a relatively painful bite. Taking the photos I had envisioned, we named the not so little guy Steve and returned him to his home.

Why go to such lengths to find and photograph this seemingly insignificant creature? Simply because more people need to know it exists. Although the Pacific Giant Salamander is in trouble here in BC, in Washington, Oregon, and California their populations are considered healthy. There are only 60 streams in the Chilliwack River Valley and Water Shed that the Pacific Giant Salamander calls home. That number is shrinking quickly due to habitat loss from logging and development. Currently the Canadian government’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) lists the Pacific Giant Salamander as Threatened, and as mentioned earlier the British Columbia provincial government has placed it on their red list. So little is known about the population in BC that their estimated numbers range from 10,000 to 100,000. In 2007 twenty Wildlife Habitat Areas were established in an effort to help protect the Pacific Giant Salamanders in BC, however little has been done to monitor the impact these areas have had on the population. Hopefully, just by knowing the Pacific Giant Salamander exists and knowing that it is seriously threatened in BC will help raise awareness for this miniature modern day dinosaur.

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