Saturday, September 20, 2008

Camphorweed and salamanders

This may be the world's only blog entry combining the above, but with some 5.3 billion blogs out there anymore, who knows?

No matter, today was a stupendous whirlwind of a field trip. My main target was the plant Camphorweed, Pluchea camphorata. In this quest I was aided by John Howard and Tricia West, without whom finding the plant wouldn't have been possible. John and Tricia work at the sprawling 7,000-acre GE engine testing facility in Adams County, and were able to get me access to the innards of this site. John had discovered the Camphorweed here a few years back. So, along with Janet Creamer, in we went.

I have seen nearly every native plant - and most non-natives - in Ohio, and it gnaws at me if one has evaded my list. Thus, it was a treat to finally see this rather robust member of the Asteraceae. It grows in a rather plain-looking site - certainly not a place that would visually grab your eye. The handful of plants that sprang up this year grow along the edge of a seasonally damp pin oak woods in dappled shade. John tallied 75 plants one wet year, the best showing that he has seen.

A rather odd-looking plant, and not one that the gardening set is likely to be clamoring for anytime soon. From afar, it might remind one of a giant Sedum with pinkish flowers. This species is a real southerner; this locale is about as far north as it gets. A major Ohio rarity and endangered here, Camphorweed was known from a 1923 Brown County collection, and I believe a small population was discovered in Clermont County or nearby a decade or so ago.

A closeup of the flowers in all of their glory, or lack thereof. The inflorescence is entirely comprised of tubular disk flowers, lacking the showy ray flowers of many species in this family, such as daisies, sunflowers, and most asters. If you have any doubt as to its ID, rub a leaf and check the smell. Yuck. Smells just like camphor; a strong medicinally pungent, antiseptic odor.

Much to our interest, John mentioned that he regularly finds that most interesting of amphibians, the Marbled Salamander, in a nearby woodland vernal pool. I was very keen on seeing this one, which would be a "lifer" for me. Truly a nice bonus, so off we set.

Marbled Salamander, Ambystoma opacum. An astonishing animal, both in appearance and habits. Upon entering the core of the now dry vernal pool, we began carefully checking under logs and rocks, and it wasn't too long before John uncovered this fine specimen. Bit of a lunker, this boy, taping out at perhaps 4 or 5 inches. Their marbled black and white coat is a bit hard to believe, at first - it looks like something that should be adorning a tropical jungle beast.

We speculated that this male was among the first to arrive at this breeding pool. All other of our mole salamanders, genus Ambystoma, breed in a frenzied rush with the first warm rains of early spring. Marbleds buck the trend, and do it their way. They make their way to the wooded breeding pools in fall, pair off and the females lay eggs under logs, which they guard until hatching. A bit of rain is required to soak the eggs and stimulate development and hatching. Because of this strange life cycle, this beautiful salamander is probably overlooked to a large degree, as now is not the time when most people are looking for mole salamanders.

After GE, we went off to the nearby Strait Creek Prairie preserve in nearby Pike County, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. There we saw much of interest - both flora and fauna - and also stumbled into a few more salamanders. This one is a Southern Two-lined Salamander, Eurycea cirrigera. We also have the Northern Two-lined Salamander, E. bislineata, in Ohio, with U.S. Route 70 often being cited as the approximate dividing line between the two species. Visually they are nearly identical and technical characters must be closely examined to differentiate the two. Whatever, they are both beautiful and rather easily found. Just start turning rocks in and along small streams and you'll eventually find one. Long, slender, and sleek.

Soon after, in the same stream, Janet discovered this whopper of a Northern Dusky Salamander, Desmognathus fuscus. Armed with a laterally compressed tail like a muskrat, this one must have been pushing six inches.

Rather a nice looking little beast, as salamanders go. It would have been fun to have explored this little stream further for amphibians, but by this point we were completely out of time. Creeks like this, which are largely unpolluted and free of disturbance, are vital for maintaining large healthy amphibian populations. It's a good thing that TNC acquired this site, which is one of southern Ohio's premier natural areas.

This creek has lots of good memories for me. In 1997, I was botanizing along its banks when I found Warty Panic Grass, Panicum verrucosum. At that time, it was considered extirpated in Ohio, having not been seen in the state in nearly 50 years. On another trip, I found a beautiful Northern Copperhead basking on a rock by the stream. More good memories were added here today.


Tom said...

Wow...Spectacular marbled. I'm jealous.


Anonymous said...

I've never left a comment, but I love your blog. You always have such interesting things to share. I took the salamander trip when OOS met at Shawnee and also the flora trip you led there. They were fun and I learned alot. I am
looking forward to the Ohio Audubon
Assembly next month. A friend new to birding and I signed up for the Funk Bottoms trip. Maybe some lifer sparrows!
dawn z.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your nice comment, Dawn. I aways appreciate feedback, and I'm glad that you enjoy the blog. I'll see you at the Audubon Assembly!