Magazine article National Parks

A Slippery Subject

Magazine article National Parks

A Slippery Subject

Article excerpt

Civil War battlefields aren't generally considered havens for wildlife, but Petersburg National Battlefield is home to a salamander like no other.

A FEW YEARS AGO, BIOLOGIST IOE MITCHELL set out to document amphibians and reptiles living in Virginia's national parks-data that had never been captured before. One day, after setting several traps in a heavily vegetated pond in the Five Forks unit of Petersburg National Battlefield, he and his colleagues made an unexpected discovery: an enormous black salamander called a two-toed amphiuma.

"After the Civil War, there wasn't a whole lot of vegetation in this area," says Mitchell, "but Petersburg and other battlefields have been protected for so long that the vegetation has come back, and so have the animals-if they ever left at all, that is. Now that the area has a number of little farms with ponds, it's become a really nice place for turtles and amphibians. But we were a little surprised when we found several amphiumas in the minnow traps we'd set in the pond the previous day."

North America's largest salamander, the two-toed amphiuma (Amphiuma means) grows to nearly four feet long and resembles a big black eel with scrawny little legs. According to Mitchell, biologists agree that the amphiuma's two pairs of spindly legs are essentially useless in terms of locomotion, but they may be used in courtship. The species is generally found in the Coastal Plain of the Atlantic Seaboard, so it was a little unusual to find them in a Piedmont tributary that ultimately feeds into a North Carolina river. Mitchell concluded that they must have simply followed the stream up to its headwaters, which originate in Virginia.

Amphiumas spend most of their time foraging in the bottom of streams, hunkering down beneath leaf litter and vegetation. "They prefer slow-moving backwater cypress gum swamps, marshes, streams, and wetlands that are fairly common throughout southeast Virginia," says John Kleopfer, a herpetologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "They're very reclusive animals that hunt primarily at night, and generally spend the day in crayfish burrows waiting for prey to approach."

Amphiumas love crayfish, but they'll eat anything they can get in their mouths, including aquatic insects, worms, and tadpoles. …

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