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Old 12-02-2014, 03:45 PM   #1
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Default Ensatinas (Ensatina eschsholtzii) A salamander tale

This bit of information about a forest creature and its importance within the community it lives. Each and every species has its place and contributes to the whole. We see this again and again as we learn more about these creatures. Check out the link for more of the story.

Little Critter With Big Influence | American Forests

Betsy L. Howell is a wildlife biologist who has worked for the U.S. Forest Service for 20 years.


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LIFE UNDERGROUND
Ensatinas (Ensatina eschsholtzii) are about half the length of a pencil when full-grown and completely terrestrial.
They leave their underground worlds only on warm, moist days and nights,
when they come to the surface to take refuge from the sodden ground under pieces of bark.
Apart from their large eyes, they are easily identified by bright, yellow markings on the tops of their legs
and a slight constriction at the base of their tails.
“Ensatina,” a Latin word meaning “sword-like” refers to the way the tail is held straight and displayed to predators.
They are a lungless salamander, meaning that they absorb oxygen solely through their skin.
This makes them extremely sensitive to changes in air temperature and humidity.
However, they also seem to be a very adaptable species.
I have observed them in older forests, younger forests and even sometimes on the edges of clear-cuts.
The species also has an extensive geographic range, occurring along the west coast of North America,
from Baja California in Mexico to southern British Columbia in Canada.
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In the mid-1970s, studies conducted in New Hampshire determined that land-dwelling salamanders existed in tremendous numbers in eastern forests. In one hectare — an area the size of a football field — approximately 2,950 salamanders were counted. This biomass — that is, the total weight of all of the salamanders — was double that of birds during the breeding season and equal to that of small mammals year-round. Most of these salamanders were the eastern red-backed, a cousin of the western species I so often spot. In another study in New York, it was found that the eastern red-backed salamander directly influenced the community of invertebrates that consume leaf litter. In essence, the salamanders were a kind of super predator on animals like beetles. Because ensatinas are the most common terrestrial salamander in western coastal forests, is it possible that they fulfill the same role? And if so, what is the significance of such an ecological job? These questions were waiting for someone to answer them
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Similar to earlier results obtained in the east, Best found that ensatina salamanders have enormous effects on their environment. Only a month into the study, the experimental plots that had a salamander showed a marked decrease in the number of large invertebrate leaf-litter shredders, such as beetles and fly larvae. This in turn resulted in 13 percent more leaf litter remaining in these plots than in the plots with no salamanders, which meant that more carbon continued to be stored in the ecosystem. Conversely, plots without salamanders had more invertebrates, which consumed the leaf litter, resulting in the release of carbon into the atmosphere. The ensatina’s removal of these large and competitive shredders also opened up food resources for tiny grazers, such as mites and barklice. These animals, which are crucial in the consumption of fungi and bacteria, could then increase in numbers.
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Having ensatina salamanders doing their job seems to clearly mean more leaf litter is retained on the forest floor,
which means less carbon is released into the atmosphere. This retained material is then available for another forest process called humification.
In contrast to decomposition, which is about decay,
humification involves the creation of humus, the rich, organic matter that is the basis for all life in the forest.
“Each process is always happening simultaneously,” explains Best,
“but the ratio of each to the other may increase or decrease based on weather patterns and trophic dynamics.”
Measuring humification is difficult, so Best does not know to what extent this process is happening,
but he can definitively say that an ensatina salamander’s presence in his study plots resulted in a smaller proportion of leaves being converted into carbon dioxide,
thus making this organic material available for the creation of humus.
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Yet, prudent thinking and sound research show again and again the wisdom of Aldo Leopold’s words about maintaining all the pieces of an ecosystem: A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. This is a moral and practical philosophy. Michael Best believes that woodland salamanders are the stewards of the forests, silently channeling invertebrate biomass into energy and maintaining productive ecosystems.

Even if the ensatina’s shoebutton eyes, interesting courtship rituals or strange life underground aren’t enough to pique someone’s attention, the animal’s effect on the storage of carbon in a world whose atmosphere is already overloaded with it should be.
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