Stebbins, A Life and Times


Written when he was 95 years old.
There is no logical nor chronological order to the memories.

Post 1

Salamanders That Walk With a cane

The Museum of vertebrate Zoology at U. C. Berkeley, an institution devoted primarely to the study of land-dwelling vertebrates (animals with a backbone), was ready to hire a full-time person in herpetology, the science of reptiles and amphibians. I was lucky to get the job!

I arrived at MVZ in 1945, feeling I had gotten the best herpetology job in the country (perhaps in the world!). I was 30 years old! By 1946 I was on my way to my first publication (it appeared in 1947). I was that dedicated to my emerging profession. The subject was a study of the Mount Lyell Salamander, Hydromantes platycephalus, an animal that had intrigued me for years. This attachment resulted from many family vacation trips to Yosemite and, especially, during my training there in 1940 to become a ranger naturalist in the National Park Service.

During that period, on a high Sierran trip, I came close to the place where the animal had been discovered but was unable, at the time, to search the area for salamanders. I had especially wanted to see the site where the species had first been found –the “type locality” (vicinity of Mt. Lyell). A mating pair had walked into a snap-trap set for rodents by MVZ researchers. The salamanders were found dead, pinned down together, under the lethal arm of the spring-driven trap. What a way to go!

However, on July 28, 1946, my long-sought goal was achieved. I saw my first living Mount Lyell Salamanders! Seven individuals from the top of Half Dome (seeming to me an unlikely place at the time) were on exhibit at the Yosemite Museum. They had been found under exfoliating rock shells on top of the dome. I was enthralled. But how did they get there over the smooth, sloping, granitic surfaces?

I began writing notes on coloration and behavior. Almost immediately I was struck by their movements. They moved about as if the tail was a cane. They curled the tail forward and placed the tip against the ground every time a hind leg was lifted. When crawling along a horizontal slope, the tail swung its support to the down-hill side. If the slope changed to the other side, the support shifted to the other side, and if the animal crawled directly up-slope, the tail tended to swing its support from side to side, more-or-less in sinc with the alternating leg movements. Unfortunately I failed to check down-hill effects.

The tip of the tail is blunt, which helps the animal deal with slippage and wear-and tear on rock surfaces.

The feet are also notable. They are wonderfully structured in ways that support locomotion on smooth rock surfaces, as well as in other less demanding environments. The figure shows the underside of a foot. Note the broad somewhat concave surface covered with furrows that increases the skin surface. The area is also covered with adhesive glands. When the animal is placed on a glass surface, even vertical, the adhesion afforded by the feet is great. They are able to climb a vertical glass surface! This explains why they can move about and ascend steep. smooth areas such as are present on Half Dome, and why they can travel so effectively on slick glacial polish, an indispensible requirement throughout much of their range. The tail action is ingrained. Even hatchlings use their tiny stubby tails as a “cane”!

Many years later, when I got around to recording their locomotion on motion picture film, I persuaded daughter Melinda to stage the animal for me. I asked for so many retakes (trying to get them just right) she finally got fed up and burst forth with an explosive “Dad, I’ve had it! I’m out of here” or some such expression. Don’t get me wrong, Lindy loves nature and her father.

Editor’s Note: With the exception of minor typographical and editorial corrections, all efforts have been taken to preserve Dr. Stebbins’ text as originally recorded.

For more information on this serial column featuring the life and times of Dr. Robert C. Stebbins, please visit this post.

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  1. #1 by Kathy Stebbins on March 5, 2017 - 8:57 pm

    My uncle, Robert Stebbins, taught me the love of nature. These stories bring back many happy memories of the Stebbins family and the experiences we all shared.

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