Ever seen a leech? How about a Giant Toebiter? Well they exist…and often in the same place! During some recent work in the Yuba watershed, a great group of folks from Earth Watch came along to help with amphibian surveys a few different meadows. I think it’s possibly one of my favorite experiences to help teach/explore nature with curious and inquisitive people, young or old. All were teachers from the East Coast, and we had a great time surveying for amphibians in wetlands and streams throughout the area. For the most part, the meadows (as much of the Sierra Nevada) are still grazed by cattle, and there are non-native trout in the stream. The combination of those two things tends to make the probability of finding amphibians somewhat low…however, pacific chorus frogs have an uncanny ability to occur nearly everywhere and we found a few adults as well as tapdoles at multiple locations in the region.
At least 4-5 species of butterfly were observed in the meadow as well. Here’s a nice close-up of a species that bears a striking resemblance to a Monarch…but not sure it’s true identity at the moment, will double check in the future.
After surveying the main meadow, we visited a few other locations that were off the beaten path. The final destination required some cross country hiking through dense thickets of manzanita and white-thorn, but after a bit of reconnaissance, we found a small game trail that cut through the undergrowth. It made walking a bit easier, though only for your feet…it was mostly impossible to actually see in front of you, or for that matter, where your feet were. You simply had to “feel” a space with your feet and step forward while surrounded by thickets of sharp shrubs. Somewhat similar to the feeling you might have if your wore a bucket over your head and walked through a carwash of tree branches.
Nonetheless, we made it to a unmarked and unnamed pond which was lovely. Untrammeled and largely untouched by large ungulates, it was teeming with pacific chorus frog tadpoles and recent metamorphs or “young-of-year”. It was fun watching everyone trying to catch and hold frogs that were smaller than the size of a thimble.
Furthermore, I observed a couple of very interesting and exciting bits of natural history. Moments which are unexpected, but often the things that stick with you. First, we found larvae of S. long-toed salamnanders, which was very exciting. They aren’t common, they are fairly difficult to find, and they are tightly tied with the climate in that they breed after snow has melted in small pools and ponds.
Finally, I noticed there was an abundance of giant toe-biters or Belastomatidae in the pond. These aquatic beetles can grow to be several inches long, have a hollow needle like mouth which they pierce their prey with and inject a concoction that helps digest the inside of their prey before they eat. They are pretty amazing, though have a painful bite. Anyway, I happened to see one attached to a tadpole and was able to get some pretty awesome pictures. We also saw a leech (I believe it’s a frog leech) which had a number of baby leeches inside of it. I’ve seen leeches before, but never one with many leeches outside and inside of a single large leech.
Everyone was fascinated, disgusted, and generally curious to learn more. It was a great day in the field and an excellent reason to spend more time outside. Never know what you’ll come across!