A strange and ancient dance takes place starting this time of year in most of our eastern and central states and in much of Texas and Oklahoma. You may have missed it in the southern part of this range, but in the north there’s still time to attend. The only prerequisite for participation is that you be a slimy salamander. Here are the steps: First the male pushes the prominent gland on his chin against his partner’s tail, body, and head. Then, employing his stout tail, he raises and lowers his hind legs simultaneously and separately. As the dance progresses he starts raising his front legs as well. His feet, chin, and the silvery spots on his head, body, and tail turn pink, then bright red. He rubs against his partner, gently bites and releases her, then inserts his head under her chin and moves beneath her. Now the female gets into it, straddling his tail and moving forward. The male stops, rocks, and drops a sperm-filled capsule called a spermatophore. Finally, the female picks up the spermatophore with her cloacal lips. Slimy salamanders are a complex of species, not a single one. Depending on which taxonomist you believe, there may be as few as three or as many as 16 closely related and strikingly similar species. Forget about distinguishing them in the field. A better name for this complex would be “sticky salamander,” because the mucous they secrete as a defense against predators is thick and gluelike. It took one researcher 10 minutes to scrub it off his hands. Slimy salamanders are completely terrestrial, and there is no distinct larval stage. Eggs, deposited underground, hatch into miniature versions of the adults.
6|Flower of Many Names
The trout lily, as the unofficial dean of fly fishers, John Voelker, wrote of its namesake, “will not—indeed cannot—live except where beauty dwells.” The brown mottling on the elliptical leaves resembles the pattern on the backs of brook trout—the gaudy landlocked char with which trout lilies share some range and general habitat in the eastern United States and Canada. As brook trout begin their spring feeding frenzy, the yellow blooms of trout lilies unfurl in moist, open woodlands and especially along rills, rivers, and ponds. Though they’re true lilies, they’re also known as “dog-toothed violets” because of the shape of the corm. Other names include “fawn lily,” for the spots on the leaves; “adder’s tongue,” for the sharply pointed, unfurled leaves that push up through forest duff; and “thousand leaf,” because the dense colonies often have few blooms, a function of subterranean runners that produce only one leaf. (A plant needs two leaves to produce a flower, and this may not happen until its seventh year.) Leaves and corms are relished by wild-food aficionados, though if consumed in excess, they can cause vomiting. Leaves may also be ingested as birth control—as prescribed by early Native Americans—provided pregnancy is not a concern.