When hiking in the Alps or the prealpine ranges we often encounter typical animals like ibexes, chamois or marmots. We also notice birds, alpine choughs, ravens or the huge birds of prey like the golden eagle. Some of us will take photographs of butterflies or grasshoppers and sometimes even lizards make it to the pages of SP. But rarely do amphibians get into the limelight, most likely because of the clandestine life they lead. This little article is dedicated to the Alpine Salamander (Salamandra atra) which will be referred to here with its German name: the Alpensalamander.
Some of you will have encountered the Alpensalamander on your rambles through the Alps but then - many of you won't. It is considered an endangered species though in the regions it occurs, it can be rather common. Like any amphibian it lives in humid surroundings, near creeks or on wet meadows and pastures. Some Alpensalamanders even like the big scree fields of the limestone ranges and occur at their edges, where vegetation takes over from rock.
Distribution of Salamandra atra
The Alpensalamander is a slow little fellow - it moves at little more than turtle-speed. But lacking the turtle's shell it needs other strategies to survive. It is active during dusk and dawn and also at night and prefers to hide beneath the vegetation. Since it is a small animal - females reach up to 15cm (6 inches) a batch of long grass suffices to hide it completely. The Alpensalamander is slim and has a strikingly human form. It seems to have been the role model for Gollum in the Lord of The Rings.
However, though it shares Gollum's clandestine life, it is hard to see it share his character. It feeds on snails, spiders and any kind of insects which are slow enough to get caught in slow motion movement but it is not probable that you will catch a salamander on the hunt. Its own enemies are alpine choughs, magpies and the European viper (Vipera berus). It protects itself - like its close relative the Fire Salamander - with a secretion from the glands which cover its body.
Fire Salamander, close relative of the Alpensalamander
The Alpensalamander occurs at elevations between 1000m and 2400m. Some specimen have been found at 2800m! This habitat forced the species to develop a special kind of reproduction. Unlike other amphibians the Alpensalamander does not lay eggs. The larvae wouldn't survive the freezing cold in lakes at the aformentioned elevations. Therefore the uteri (an Alpensalamander female has two uteri) serve as lake-like habitat for the larvae to develop, first with gills which later make room for lungs. The development takes two years at lower elevations and three years above 1800m.
The Alpensalamander only comes out of hiding at daytime, if the weather is humid. Humidity has to be above 85% which means that you'll only encounter the little fellow during rain, fog or both. Sometimes, after a nightly downpour you will have a salamander cross your trail in the early morning, which when most of the animals are sighted.
A Wrestling Match
The Cheek-to-Cheek Tango position
Speaking of myself for a minute - I have always been envious of my sister in law who kept coming back with blurry salamander pictures from her vacations. What I didn't realize was that sighting salamanders also means hiking in bad weather and that there really was no reason for envy at all. This year I have been blessed with half a dozen encounters - which tells a lot about the weather I had to walk through! Salamander shots tend to be blurry as the animals are black and prefer to move under overcast skies. There's never much light when you try to get a portrait.
During my recent Dolomite vacation - during a bad weather period (sic!) - we had to forgo climbing the summits. On one particular day we decided to hike out the Fanes Valley from Cortina d'Ampezzo with the slight hope of better weather during the day. In that case we planned to reach one of the Fanes Alms (Big or Small) and at least get views from the surrounding mountains. As we started from the parking lot along a closed paved road, suddenly Judith shouted out: "What is this?"
Right in the middle of the road a tiny black sculpture seemed to be standing and as I got closer (of course I had walked by noticing nothing) I realized that here was my first Alpensalamander. And the second as well. One atop the other. First we suspected indecent behaviour (in the middle of the road!) but we soon found out that something different seemed to be going on. One of the little guys was simply relaxing on top of the other's head. Of course I took out my camera and started to document this for posterity.
Light was low so I tried the flash but immediately found that my Salamanders didn't like it. Something like a pained look appeared in their big black eyes. First they didn't move but as they got used to us and the clicking of the camera they sprang into action. "Action" and "springing" are words which don't quite describe what really happened. We soon found out that we had interrupted a wrestling match. A slow motion battle royal. Up to now we are not sure what the rules of the game were. Somehow the goal seemed to get on top of the other and for the other to prevent just this. On the other hand choreography seemed to be important - there was the cheek-to-cheek Tango position and also the Ying-and-Yang position. At one time Greco-Roman wrestling rules seemed to be valid as one of the salamanders threw the other on its back. But judge for yourself:
With big smiles on our faces we watched to two sportsmen. The match went on for minutes and I snapped about 50 shots. Finally - we wanted to get along - we decided to go. Judith decided that the road was not the right place for an unattended wrestling match. Though it was closed, mountain bikers or logging trucks might drive by. She grabbed a large leaf from the next bush and somehow manoeuvred the first Salamander onto it and over to a ditch. The other was close to follow. Somehow we were sure they would return to their arena on the road but this was as much as we could do for them. We went on to spend our day on the Fanes plateau in decently nice weather.
As we returned we were happy that we did not see any black roadkill in the place where the match had taken place. Hopefully the two little guy will reach the end of their life expectancy of ten years!