Sonoma County is home to the California Tiger Salamander (CTS), the cute little black and yellow amphibian pictured above. They are a large, stocky salamander with protruding speckled eyes and a broadly rounded snout that wears a constant smile. The name "Tiger" clearly comes from the yellow or white bars stretched across their mostly black bodies. As adults, they mostly eat insects, and as larvae, they eat algae, mosquito larvae, tadpoles, and smaller insects. Their habitat is restricted to grasslands and oak savannah communities near vernal pools and seasonal ponds, as these are necessary for breeding.
Unfortunately, California Tiger Salamanders are endangered, meaning they are in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range. This is largely due to the destruction of their breeding habitat by agriculture and residential development. Their situation is particularly dire in Sonoma County, where the development of high-density housing, office buildings, roads, and other urban development threatens 95% of their remaining habitat. For this reason, their population here in Sonoma County, as well as Santa Barbara and central California are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a recovery plan for the California Tiger Salamander in accordance with a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity. The plan calls for the purchase and permanent protection of approximately 15,000 acres of breeding ponds and adjacent wetlands in Sonoma County to alleviate the threat of habitat loss and fragmentation. For developers, mitigation is required for developing near CTS breeding zones or areas where adult CTS have been spotted. Because mitigation is required for hardscaping (i.e. patios, decomposed granite walkways, etc.), this process also applies to landscape designers.
The term mitigation means reducing the severity, detriment, or painfulness of something. Therefore, with regards to CTS and other endangered species, a mitigation process is performed to "offset" the damages done by developing near an endangered habitat by purchasing credits from a mitigation bank, which is designed to create habitats elsewhere through preservation and restoration. such that there is no net loss to the environment. Essentially, it's a system in which you can do something ecologically questionable in one area so long as you do something ecologically favorable elsewhere such that there is no net loss to the environment, habitat, or whatever cause the process is focused on. How close you are to CTS breeding sites and adult Salamander occurrences determines the mitigation ratio and in turn the amount of mitigation credits that must be purchased.
Here at Landzen, we've had a couple instances of spotting them on job sites or working within a protected habitat site and in turn, going through this mitigation process. These situations are what piqued our interest in the little creatures. After doing some research to learn more about their plight, we were moved to pledge a portion of our profits each year to the protection and restoration of their habitats. But enough about that, let's get back to the salamanders. In terms of spotting one, we are just now entering the time of the year where they are more likely to be visible. You are unlikely to see one during the dry months as they stay underground in animal burrows in a dormant state called estivation. But at around this time in November, they start coming out of these burrows - because it's mating time! The migration out of their burrow to a pond or lake (as much as a mile away!) generally occurs on a stormy night, such as the first rain of the season.
After mating, female CTS can lay up to 1,300 eggs, which are generally adhered to some sort of vegetation. These eggs will hatch in 10-14 days into the larval stage. Compared to other amphibians, California Tiger Salamanders require significantly more time to transition into juvenile adults. Eventually, around late spring, the young salamanders leave the ponds that they've been raised in to find burrows where they can endure the hot dry summer months under the protection of the earth.
With all of this in mind, make sure to keep an eye out for these unique amphibians! They're pretty cute, but knowing a little bit more about their background makes spotting one a bit extra special. And now, if you see this guy embroidered on a Landzen hat around town, you'll know why!