Stebbins, A Life and Times

ROBERT STEBBINS’S MEMORIES

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

Post 4

A Search for Giant Salamanders in the Trinity Alps of California

Aug. 27, 1960. News had been spreading about large salamanders in the Sacramento River of California. They were said to be as big as the giant salamanders of China – aquatic monsters some six feet in length! The reports included the main drainage of the River, but that was soon replaced by stories of giants in lakes, associated with the river, but in a distant locality in northwestern california. The place was “Whites Creek” near Pony Mountain.

This immediatly captured the interest of U.C. Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, engaged in studies of wildlife throughout california. Giant salamanders, if truely giant, would be a remarkable discovery indeed. As the head of the Department of Herpetology I was put in charge of organizing a trip to check our the area. I was delighted because it was a wild countryside completely unknown to me.

Leadership quickly took form: It included Nathan Cohen, a close friend and long a field companion, Tom Rodgers, a skilled wildlife biologist, and myself. In addition, we had with us a group of Explorer Scouts, and their leader Steve Harding, experienced in outdoor activities. The scouts provided meals, helped with camp chores, and were on call to assist in gathering scientific information enroute.

The accompanying map, modified to show points of interest that relate to expedition events and objectives, is based on De lorme Map #44 on which I show our travel route. I’ve strenthened drainage routes in green color to help clarify water-flow directions. The Limestone Ridge area on the map, in the vicinity of Pony Mountain and Whites Creek, was the goal of the expedition. Note the many drainages that terminate in “Limestone Ridge”. This area has many limestone pits and caves, including several small lakes, in which the reported giant salamander might be expected. The exposed rocky surfaces and lakes made me think of the California High Sierra.

There follows some notes taken enroute.

Aug. 27. Turn off from U.S. 299 to Helena/Hobo Gulch. Arrived at Gulch at 7:15 p.m. climbed over Backbone Ridge into the North Fork of the Trinity River. The Gulch is an old stream-created terrace about 200 feet wide. Vegetation is Douglas Fir, etc.

Aug. 28. Entered a steep-sided canyon. A stream has deepened its bed. Saw a Water Ouzel, a bird that dives into streams, completely immersing itself to find prey along the stream bottom. Met a Fire Guard who advised us to hang our food high in a tree to protect against bears.

Headed for whites Creek about noon. Made camp 1 mile west of our objective. Saw a young Western Skink with a bright blue tail.

Aug. 29. We have reached an elevation of 5,000 ft. Saw a female Purple Finch on the Hunter’s Camp trail – to be expected at this altitude. Arrived at camp-site at 3:00 p.m. (5,500 ft. elevation). Found abundant bear sign – fresh scratches on tree trunks.

Aug. 30. Departed Hunter’s Camp about 8:00 a .m. heading for our destination – White’s Creek Lake (6,180 ft.). Now officially named “Monster Lake”. We are in Red-fir country. The Trinity Alps form a grand rugged-edged arch to the east, resembling a crest of the Sierra Nevada.

With our destination just ahead, I gathered all members of our group. I told them that only the scientists were to make first contact because we wished to have a cautious approach to assess the situation and avoid escape behavior of our objective – water dwelling salamanders. The scouts were eager. They went ahead. We soon followed. As the scientists approached “Monster Lake”, we were pleased by the scene. The scouts were sitting on a hillside in view of the lake, quietly awaiting our arrival and they stayed back until I signaled they could join the scientists.

At the time of our visit Monster Lake was about 100 x 60 feet and its greatest depth around 30 feet. A scout with baited hook caught a salamander but it was no giant. It was about 6 inches in snout-vent length. It was a California Giant Salamander, Dicamptodon ensatus, large for its New-World size, but not anywhere close to that of Asia. Furthermore it was a “neotenic” that occurs in cold water lakes where the temperature inhibits transformation to the usual adult stage. However, they can breed. They have prominent reddish gills and may spend their entire lives in the aquatic stage, yet they have the potential to shed their gills and assume a terrestrial existence if warmer temperatures occur. We soon found large numbers of these neotenics – and their tracks were nearly everywhere in the shallows of the lake, but all were no longer than a foot-and-a-half in total length. I assumed they were in the deeper water as well but were out of sight because of distance and accumulated plant fragments.

The Giant Salamander Mystery Explained

As I stood on the bank of Monster Lake with neotenic salamanders in the water below my feet and waterlogged trunks and branches in the deeper water, a short distance away, I noted that many of the branches, in color and shape, looked somewhat similar to those of the salamanders. Every so often a breeze would come up that rippled the water and caused some of the fragments to move, or appear to move. I concentrated my attention on this illusion – glancing toward the salamanders at my feet, then at rippled water surfaces. I soon could imagine I was seeing large salamanders in the deeper water. However I felt no need to pursue the matter further. Given the small size of the lake, it was evident it could not support a giant salamander population. However it was helping to support California Giant Salamanders.

I was left with thoughts of future opportunities for research – not for me, but future explorers. How important is the ability to turn on periods of completely water-dwelling life (neoteny)? Why bother when the habitat is well supplied with crevices and caves, like those in other parts of the species range where no (or little?) such behavior occurs? Is the pressure of numbers involved the neotenics making possible further species expansion by entry into aquatic habitats? This would call for survival (without feeding) throughout periods of complete freeze-over of occupied lakes. Would this be possible? Some frogs are known to do so. This matter calls for study. There is much to be learned by further study of this fascinating animal tucked away in its remote refuge in the Trinity Alps.

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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