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Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Fort Ord National Monument
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

The other day my students and I lucked out with the weather and managed to get in a full day of exploring a former military base. Fort Ord, on Monterey Bay near the small city of Marina, was an Army base until it was closed in 1994. Since then, most of the land (~14,600 acres) has been designated the Fort Ord National Monument, administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Smaller portions were transferred to the surrounding cities, the campus of CSU Monterey Bay, the state park system, and the University of California's Natural Reserve system. Our guide for the day, Joe, is the reserve manager for the Fort Ord Natural Reserve, and had arranged for us to meet with researchers working at both sites that we visited. It really was a fantastic learning opportunity for all of us.

The Fort Ord National Monument (FONM) came into being in 2012--thank you, President Obama! Most of the monument is public land, with miles of trails used to hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders. The monument is also home to the California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), the central California population of which is federally threatened. The first person we met on our field trip was a guy named Robert, who is a graduate researcher working on conservation of the tiger salamanders. Robert showed us some artificial vernal pools that he's using in his research.

Artificial vernal pools at Fort Ord National Monument
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

The 18 pools are about 10 meters in diameter, lined with an impermeable layer, and were allowed to fill with natural rainwater. Robert's plan is to seed them with salamander larvae and record how they survive and disperse from the pools. There's a lot more to the story than that, but it's Robert's story to tell, not mine.

We did get to help Robert check the pitfall traps, which are arranged in pairs on each side of the fence surrounding each pool. Each trap is a small bucket set into the ground to be level with the surface. The lid is mounted on wooden legs and sits above the trap, to keep it from filling with water. Animals crawling along the fence will fall into the bucket. Robert collects data on the animals trapped and then releases them unharmed.

The tiger salamanders are all underground at this time of year so there were none in the traps. The students did, however, find a pair of western toads (Anaxyrus boreas) in one of the traps. They were in amplexus, which is what herpetologists call the mating position of frogs and toads: the male clasps the female around her body, ideally positioned to fertilize the female's eggs as she lays them.

Western toads (Anaxyrus boreas) at Fort Ord National Monument
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

The pair of amorous toads were released into one of the ponds, where they swam off together, still in amplexus. Their offspring will be born into the pond as tadpoles, along with those of the chorus frogs, the red-legged frogs, and hopefully not too many bullfrogs. Incidentally, herpetologists use the term 'tadpole' to refer only to the larvae of frogs and toads; Robert calls the larvae of his study salamanders just 'larvae'.

We ventured over to the Fort Ord Natural Reserve (FONR), where we ate our lunch in a clearing surrounded by coast live oaks and coastal scrub. FONR is one of five natural reserves managed by UC Santa Cruz as an outdoor classroom and teaching lab. School groups ranging from elementary school to university levels visit FONR to learn about the natural environment, often for the very first time.

FONR sits on an ancient sand dune, and all of the vegetation has had to adapt to difficult growing conditions. The soil is almost entirely sand and doesn't hold water at all. The wind picks up just about every afternoon and blows in salt from the ocean; these winds can be quite fierce even without the salt. The sand itself gets blown around, making an unstable substrate. As a result, plants that would otherwise grow tall are stunted here. Take, for example, the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). In places that are more sheltered from the wind, they are tall and majestic, even as they continue their meandering growth form. At FONR they are much shorter and more closely resemble the other scrub plants than actual trees.

Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and coastal scrub at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gon
Horned lizard (Phyronosoma sp.) at FONR 2018-05-12
© Allison J. Gong

After lunch we heard from Dani, a UCSC undergraduate student studying horned lizards (Phrynosoma sp.). The lizards are very well adapted to this environment. They live in sand, and have flattened bodies so they can hide on top of the sand and become practically invisible. Like the tiger salamanders the horned lizards are underground now. They should emerge in the next couple of months. This is one that we saw last May, when Joe invited last year's class to visit the Reserve on a Saturday, after our planned field trip was cancelled due to rain.

Footsteps of spring
Sanicula arctopoides
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

In early March the plants were starting to bloom. One of the earliest bloomers is this delightful plant called 'footsteps of spring'; its real name is Sanicula arctopoides. They look like small blotches of yellow spray paint against the ground. And when you see several of them scattered on the trail, you really understand their common name.

Students follow the footsteps of spring (Sanicula arctopoides)
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

There were, of course, no horned lizards to be seen. We did, however, hike the reserve, and Joe showed us some of the endemic and/or endangered plants that live there. That's Joe, in the front of the group here:

Joe and students
Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2019-03-08

Our last stop at the end of the field trip was at a location where the Army used to work on fire suppression. They did this by dumping various flammable items and fuels on the ground, lighting them on fire, and putting them out. This activity resulted in groundwater and soil contamination, which Army contractors have been working to clean up for 20 years now. Currently the site is where Robert is raising his tiger salamander larvae in raised ponds; he will eventually release the larvae into the artificial pools that we saw earlier in the day.

Ponds for growing salamander larvae
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

Each of those ponds is filled with natural rain water and contains a small screened tub into which Robert placed 10 salamander eggs. The larvae, after they hatch and have used up all of their yolk reserves, feed on whatever zooplankton have sprung up in the ponds--a quick glance showed that copepods, ostracods, and insect larvae had already taken up residence. The idea is that the salamander larvae will escape from their tubs into the pool at large, which will give them lots of room to grow up.

In a very real sense, this field trip ended where it started. Things don't always work out this nicely, and my Type A personality is pleased at both the symmetry and the closure. Because these field trips are necessarily snapshots of what is happening at a particular moment in a particular place, it can sometimes be difficult to connect them to the real world. This week, though, I feel that my students got the whole story, or at least the entire outline of it. This visit to FONM and FONR may very well be my favorite field trip of the class, because I learned so much about things that are new to me. Thank you, Joe, for arranging such an amazing day for us!

Thursday is the day that our trash and recycling/green waste bins get emptied. This afternoon I was moving my green waste bin out to the curb and discovered three little creatures living under it. Two of the three guys were the same, and the third was something different. Fortunately none of them had been injured when I rolled the bin out of its spot next to the fence. The two little guys stayed put when I ran inside to grab my camera, but when I came out the largest guy had disappeared. I found it curled up next to the inside edge of one of the wheels on the bin and was able to coax it out for a few pictures.

A bit of research on the mighty Interwebs leads me to conclude that the larger of my new damp friends is a California slender salamander, Batrachoseps attenuatus. It certainly is slender, isn't it?

California slender salamander (Batrocoseps attenuatus) that was living under my green waste bin. 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus) that was living under my green waste bin.
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

If it weren't for the tiny legs, at first glance this guy would look like a snake. Here's a close-up of its front end (and the palm of my hand):

Head and forelegs of California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuates). 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Head and forelegs of California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus).
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

All told, the slender salamander was about 15 cm long. It fit very nicely in my hand.

California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus). 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus).
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The two other critters were quite small, about 3 cm long, and more typically salamander-shaped. I'm pretty sure they were the same species but juveniles can be difficult to identify. They were dark gray, almost black, with tiny yellow speckles that I thought at first were dust bits. Looking at the photos now I'm pretty sure at least some of them were speckles, though.

Little arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris) that was living under my green waste bin. 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Small arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris) that was living under my green waste bin.
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris). 3 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Arboreal salamander (Aneides lugubris).
3 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little guys, aren't they? Aneides lugubris gets its common name from the fact that it can and does climb on trees. However, they are more commonly seen on the ground. Like all salamanders they must remain moist because they breathe through their skin, so they are found under wood piles or flower pots or other yard structures. Including green waste bins, apparently.

I had to remove these guys' shelter to the curb, so I gently scooped them up, handling them as little as possible, and transferred them to the flower bed. I hope they'll be happy and can find shelter there.

I love the serendipity of finding creatures when I didn't expect to! Especially when they're creatures I'm not familiar with. Any chance to learn about something new is fine by me!

This past weekend I was in the San Joaquin Valley to celebrate my dad's 80th birthday. On a cold and rainy Saturday morning we gathered at my parents' house to take care of some last-minute things before the big party later that evening. We were in the backyard when I noticed a tiny lizard on the patio under a table. It was so still even as I approached that at first I thought it was dead, but when I touched it it turned its head away from my finger and twitched a leg. Amidst suggestions of "Pick it up" and "Don't squish it!" I coaxed the little guy onto my hand and held it out for pictures, hoping I'd have time to ID it after all the birthday festivities.

Small lizard found in my parents' backyard in Fresno, California. 19 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Small lizard found in my parents' backyard in Fresno, California.
19 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

Cute little thing, isn't it? The entire body is only about 5 cm long. It didn't look like any of the native lizards or salamanders that I've seen, and a little research on the excellent website California Herps confirmed that it is indeed an alien species.

Hemidactylus turcicus, the Mediterranean house gecko, has been living in California since at least as early as 2007. It is a nocturnal gecko that is usually associated with human dwellings, as artificial lights attract the moths and other insects that the gecko preys upon. The predatory habits of this H. turcicus make it a welcome, if informal, house pet in its native range. I was unable to find how H. turcicus made it into California from the Mediterranean, but I bet the original "colonists" were escaped pets. Since they are small (no longer than 15 cm) and nocturnal, they are not considered to be a threat to native California lizards, although their distribution in California seems to expanding northward.

Like most other geckos, H. turcicus has vertical pupils and doesn't have eyelids. In this picture you can see the pupil. We watched our little guy lick its eyeballs several times, which is what geckos do to keep their eyes clean and moistened.

Head detail of H. turcicus, showing the vertical pupil. 19 December 2015 © Allison J. Gong
Head detail of H. turcicus, showing the vertical pupil.
19 December 2015
© Allison J. Gong

There's no way of knowing how long this little gecko has lived in my parents' backyard, or now long it will live after I let it go. Now that I know about them, I'm going to keep an eye out for them around here where I live. According to the California Herps species map for H. turcicus, there has been at least one verified sighting in Santa Cruz County. They don't seem to be particularly shy, but their nocturnal behavior and small size may make them difficult to see even if they are fairly abundant. If one makes it into my house, I'll welcome it and hope my cats don't catch it. I wouldn't mind another mouth in the house, if it's one that I don't have to feed.

The birds do it, the bees do it, and now the frogs are doing it.  There's a small clump of trees between two of the houses across the street, and I think that's where a male Pacific chorus frog has staked his claim.  Every evening for the past few weeks I've heard him singing away.  Often you'll hear several frogs singing at the same time, but this particular guy's call is much louder and more piercing than the others.  What I particularly like about this sound recording is that it begins with a solo, and other frogs join in to make a joyful noise.

The Pacific chorus frog (Pseudacris regilla), sometimes erroneously referred to as the Pacific tree frog, is the only frog that ribbits.  It couldn't possibly be mistaken for anything else.  In fact, its song is so iconic of "frogness" that it is universally used in movies and other Hollywood products taking place anywhere in the world, despite the fact that this little singer lives only along the western coast of the US.

Most Pacific chorus frogs don't live in trees
Most Pacific chorus frogs don't live in trees

Why is it wrong to call these guys tree frogs?  Because they don't live in trees, silly!  At least, not exclusively in trees.  Along the central California coast they live in grassy areas from the coast up into the hills.  I start hearing them in winter, as the rains form puddles and small ponds, but they stop singing when they hear people approaching.  To me, they are part of the soundtrack of spring in California.  While most of the singing happens at night, I often hear them singing during the day at the marine lab.  Many times the males are singing together -- hence the name chorus frogs.

Considering their ability to make a lot of noise, Pacific chorus frogs are little guys.  Big ones are only 5 cm long.  They vary in color from brown to green, and the color of an individual can change throughout the year.  They have a very distinctive dark horizontal stripe that runs through the eye, making them look like, well, chorus frogs.

Pacific chorus frog (Pseudacris regilla) on the stem of a sunflower
Pacific chorus frog (Pseudacris regilla) on the stem of a sunflower

Like all frogs, chorus frogs are tied to water for reproduction.  Once the rains have started, male frogs migrate to wet areas and set up shop.  Their "krick-et" calls attract females, and the frogs pair up and do what comes naturally to most animals in the springtime.  The female lays eggs in calm, still water and the male fertilizes them as they are deposited.  Tadpoles develop in the water and, hopefully, metamorphose into froglets in due time.

Eventually the mating season will end, and the frogs will stop singing until next year's rains.  I will miss them when they go away, but for the next little while the soundtrack of spring will play every evening.

 

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