THE BORDER LIFE
Marbled Salamander
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 2/1/98

As New Hope Creek drops through the rolling hills of Orange County into the flood plains in southern Durham County, a piece of river art known as the oxbow pond becomes a special feature of the landscape. The wide flood plains of the creek are spattered with long, crescent moon-shaped ponds holding still, clear water, somewhat darkened with the tannins of decaying leaves. These natural ponds or oxbows, are the remnants of earlier creek bends that separated from the main stream as the creek straightened out its course.

The oxbow pond received its name because of its resemblance to the bow-shaped attachments that were placed around the heads of oxen. These bows were fastened to the wooden yoke that was then positioned on the necks of these work animals. On a river the size of the Mississippi, an oxbow may be as much as a mile long. Along our local New Hope Creek, an oxbow pond may reach a length of one hundred feet.

Over the years, the creek moved further and further away from its abandoned oxbows leaving these natural ponds to become a distinct habitat of their own on the creek flood plain. With the passing of future years, the oxbows will eventually fill in with decaying vegetation and cease to be. In the meantime, they have become the nursery for one of my favorite local animals -- the pudgy, four-inch, marbled salamander.

This handsome, shiny black amphibian, crossed with large white bands, is well disguised to hide under logs on the forest floor as an adult. It resembles a streaky white slime mold that is often found on the underside of a decaying log. As I stroll along a river floodplain, I often search for marbled salamanders by carefully turning over fallen logs. If none are present, I roll the log back to its original position so as not to destroy the dark and damp micro habitat beneath it.

The marbled salamander breeds on land in the fall. The female deposits about one hundred eggs in the soil under leaf litter and then remains to carefully guard them. As winter rains form temporary pools, the eggs hatch larvae that live and thrive in the oxbow ponds. If an oxbow becomes isolated far enough from the main creek and floods are not too frequent, the waters of the oxbow pond will be a safe haven for these gilled, swimming larvae by not supporting a fish population.

The larvae of the marbled salamander transform into adults in the spring. They then leave the oxbow pond habitat for adult life in the surrounding flood plain forest or up into adjacent woodland slopes.

With 42 species, North Carolina has the distinction of having the highest number of species of salamanders of any state in the union. In fact, it could be reasonably said that we might sport the title of the "Salamander State!'' But how many of us have taken the time to search for beauty by exploring the damp, dark soil underneath a rotting forest log?
 
Photo by RIverdave: marbled slamander