Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun Newspaper on 3/7/96

       It was endangered species day at West Point on the Eno Park. Our goal was to search for two rare animals as part of our ongoing survey of wildlife along the Eno River. The first object of our concern was a small fish known as the least brook lamprey. A state wildlife biologist had told us that although no records exist for the Eno, there is a good chance it could be found in the upper tributaries of the Neuse River.

   The other focus of our search was the Neuse River waterdog, an aquatic salamander that once was common in the Eno River, but is now very difficult to find. In fact, there are only four other records of its occurrence in the river in recent years -- one in Hillsborough, two at Few's Ford and one below the Oxford Highway bridge. No recent records exist for West Point Park.

   A group of Cub Scouts from Den 461 in Durham came out on a snow-covered February day with dip nets in hand. We chose Crooked Creek, which enters the river on the north bank, as the site for our search. This creek is the Eno River's largest tributary in Durham County. In late winter, both the lamprey and the waterdog often leave the main river and ascend the river's tributaries in search of calm, leafy pools of shallow water for both optimum feeding and breeding sites.

   Visual observations revealed very little movement in the water. By turning over rocks and leaves, a variety of aquatic insects were brought to light that were the food source of the animals we were looking for. Our search was somewhat hampered by water that was rushing a bit too fast from the runoff of recent melting snow. After an hour's work, we came upon a quiet pool just off the main current of the stream. I ordered dip nets to work as we carefully examined the leafy debris brought up from the bottom of this shallow pool. Snapping crayfish protesting the disturbance of their serenity, brilliantly shimmering baby sunfish and a whole host of larvae from various aquatic insects were brought to light.

   While squatting over our nets, a cry rang out that a salamander had been found! We all huddled together and plopped this 2 1/2-inch amphibian into a plastic basin for a closer look. The presence of external gills made it possible to imagine we had found a juvenile waterdog. The larvae of the two-lined salamander would also have external gills and could conceivably be what we had found as well. A closer examination was needed, so we scooped up the little fellow into a jar and headed back to my office for a better look.

   Salamanders of different species may have as few as two or as many as five toes on each foot. The only way to be certain that we had discovered a Neuse River waterdog was to find four toes on its hind feet. Examining it from both above and below revealed the four toes we were hoping to find. Our endangered species search had been a success. Our young friend could be returned to its feeding pool on Crooked Creek with renewed hope that the Eno River and its feeder creeks were still alive with this important member of our local community.

  With forty-two species of salamanders present in our state, North Carolina has the highest diversity of this group of amphibians of any state in the country. We could conceivably be known as the "Salamander State!'' They are concentrated in the cooler mountainous regions of our state, but are common in the Triangle area as well with as many as fifteen species to be found locally. While not as obvious as the white-tailed deer or as conspicuous as our state bird the cardinal, these colorful and primitive looking creatures inhabit our streams and forests to be discovered as a reward only by the most careful and sensitive searcher and observer. Nothing will relieve the cabin fever of a brisk winter day like a good hunt in the forest for one of these Carolina treasures!
   Our Thoreauvian-style saunters along the banks of the Eno, Little and Flat rivers this winter, sponsored by Durham Parks and Recreation and the Triangle Land Conservancy, turned up eight species of salamanders. A day of "herping'' consists of carefully and patiently turning over logs, leaves and stones on land, in shallow creek beds and at boggy seepages. It is labor intensive work. I estimate that 50 or more major turnovers are required to find that one salamander who is seeking the cool, moist micro habitat for shelter. A mild, late winter day is often the best season for this activity as extremely cold or hot days will usually drive these amphibians underground or send them to deeper water. The terrestrial salamanders are fossorial, meaning that they are adapted to a burrowing lifestyle.
  The Neuse River waterdog is a fully aquatic salamander. Breeding takes place in late winter and eggs are deposited under a stone on a shallow stream bottom. Our juvenile was probably in its second year of growth, or possibly in its first if it was feeding well. Fully mature waterdogs may attain the length of eleven inches and are thought to live up to eighteen years if they can manage to escape all the predatory challenges such juicy critters must face in the Eno River.

   Two factors make the discovery of the waterdog last week at West Point Park exciting. Our government lists animals that have become rare, or are fast losing their specific habitat, as either endangered, threatened or of special concern. Such an animal receives protection in North Carolina with no open season for hunting or collecting, except for scientific study that requires a special permit. The Neuse River waterdog is listed as a species of special concern. There are stories of bygone days when waterdogs were so numerous on the Eno that they were used by fishermen as common fishing bait. But the disturbance of our river corridors through development and pollution has meant the retreat of this sensitive creature.

   There is another factor that makes the Neuse River waterdog particularly meaningful to us in the Triangle area. The only place on earth where this animal exists is in the Neuse and Tar River basins of eastern North Carolina. This amphibian is part of our state's native, natural inheritance, evolving here long before we humans arrived on the scene. Although most of us will probably never meet face to face with a Neuse River waterdog, we must ensure its protection and continued serene existence in the quiet winter pools of our local river corridors.

 Photo from Neuse River Waterdog