What is Freni’s Dragon?

April 6, 2020 — Undisclosed Location, Kirkland Backyard . . .

From: The Freni Family — Dad on behalf of Oliver (son)

To: Auntie Sharon, WDFW North Puget Sound Licensing Account Rep.

“Favor Please? Oliver caught this salamander today in our garden. We’re trying to identify it. It’s super long and has tiny arms. We looked on WDFW website and best guess, it’s a Dunn’s Salamander, but those only live in Southeast WA. If it’s a new species, Oliver votes, “Freni’s Dragon Salamander.”

April 6, 2020– WDFW North Puget Sound

From: Auntie Sharon, WDFW Licensing Account Rep.

To: Chris, Biologist, WDFW Region 4 Wildlife Bio.

Hi Chris!

How are you? I hope you and your family are all tucked away and safe! Hey, what is this creature? My little nephew sent me these pictures and asked me what it is. Haha, the bennies of working for WDFW is that they think I know. LOL

Sharon

April 6, 2020 — WDFW Region 4

From: Chris, Biologist, WDFW Region 4 Wildlife Bio.

To: Auntie Sharon, WDFW Licensing Account Rep.

. . . . Where is that coming from? No legs right? I can’t quite tell from the photos (part of me wants to turn things up close to the head into legs but it is blurry, and I think it is substrate but unsure).

Exact location and habitat would benefit … if it is on the east side of mountains, SW WA or islands there are some oddities and things that look close to each other. Also, about how long/wide? . . . ..

Chris

Later in April 2020

From: Auntie Sharon, WDFW Licensing Account Rep.

To: Chris, Biologist, WDFW Region 4 Wildlife Bio.

. . . . The creature came from a Kirkland backyard. It has four teeny tiny legs. Here is a close up of the head. . .

From: Chris, Biologist, WDFW Region 4 Wildlife Bio.

To: Lisa, Statewide Herpetology Specialist, Auntie Sharon, WDFW Licensing Account Rep.

. . . I would think this is a western red-backed; melanistic. I see no tail constriction indicating ensatina . . .. Those where were my head kept going to after confirming it does actually have legs (prior to yep it has legs I was still fluttering around …round tail….ok…dark with some speckling…ok…not huge beady eyes…less ensatina…but…where are the legs?…it is amphibian, but where are the legs?…

Looks like it needs some wetter substrate — it is dry!

. . . still a bit of a headscratcher . . . I have included our statewide herpetology specialist — Lisa 😉 . . .

From: Lisa, Statewide Herpetology Specialist, WDFW Olympia

To: Auntie Sharon, WDFW Licensing Account Rep.; Chris, Biologist, WDFW Region 4 Wildlife Bio.

Hi Chris and Sharon,

That was a surprise to see. A bit of a mystery. I’ll start with these caveats — It’s often hard to ID animals from photos and I don’t have access to my field guides. I’ll share what catches my eye and I’ll let you and your kids investigate further. It’s a lungless salamander based on the body shape and pointed nose. If you look closely, there should be a faint line that extends from each nostril to the mouth (nasolabial groove). These salamanders breathe through their skin. It is important that they stay moist in order to do that but allowing them different moisture options in their container is ideal (otherwise it can be too wet and this can create other issues). The most obvious thing I see is the exceptionally long body with a rather robust tail. I’ve never seen one in person, but that makes me think it might be a slender salamander (Batrachoseps). For this group, adults have a tail that is significantly longer than the combined head and body length.

Here are some features to investigate:

  • Is it less than 5 in. total length?
  • I can’t see the hind limbs in the photo. Is the tail actually longer than the combined head and body length (the tail starts at the vent opening just behind the hind limbs)
  • Does it have four stubby toes on the hind feet?
  • What is the coloration on the underside of the body?
  • When you look at pictures of slender salamanders on-line, do any of them look similar? (lungless salamanders, however, are highly variable)
  • Can you find any others where you found this one?

Slender salamanders are not known to occur in Washington. If it seems like this is one, it should not be released back into the wild.** There is a webpage by Marc Staniszewski called “Slender Salamander care sheet” that might be helpful.

I look forward to hearing the results but am not sure I will be of much help providing a specific ID until I have my field guides.

Best to you and your families,

Lisa

From: Auntie Sharon, WDFW Licensing Account Rep

To: Chris, Biologist, WDFW Region 4 Wildlife Bio, Lisa, Biologist, WDFW Olympia

Hello, You two wonderfully smart and engaging people! Thank you for the emails. Lisa you laid out a brilliant, understandable science lesson for this delightful 8-year-old boy. I called Joe, his dad, today and he is so grateful and appreciative. He said he was running out of ideas to engage his kids…lol. He and Oliver are going to make their observations based on your directions and report back. . .

Sharon

From: Oliver, age 8 sent by Joe, his dad

To: Auntie Sharon, WDFW Licensing Account Rep, Chris, Biologist, WDFW Region 4 Wildlife Bio, Lisa, Biologist, WDFW Olympia

Auntie Sharon, thank you for the great questions and help with identifying the salamander. We did some research trying to answer the questions below and included the attached pictures.

Here are some features to investigate:

  • Is it less than 5 in. total length?
  • No the total length is almost 6.5 inches. Please see picture.
  • I can’t see the hind limbs in the photo. Is the tail actually longer than the combined head and body length (the tail starts at the vent opening just behind the hind limbs)
  • Yes, over 4 inches long. Please see picture.
  • Does it have four stubby toes on the hind feet?
  • Yes it does. Please see attached picture.
  • What is the coloration on the underside of the body?
  • Underside body is white. Underside of tail is yellow.
  • When you look at pictures of slender salamanders on-line, do any of them look similar? (lungless salamanders, however, are highly variable)
  • Yes they look similar
  • Can you find any others where you found this one?
  • We found this one under a large piece of lumber when we were gardening. We did not see others, but will keep looking.

Thank you for the help. I have had fun investigating with my Dad.

Oliver

Response from Lisa:

. . . . Please let him know how much I appreciate the work he did (perfect!) and that I’ll work on trying to get an ID. Also, let him know I appreciate him looking for more. Checking under woody debris, rocks and leaf litter are perfect places. He should put those items back as he found them because lots of critters shelter under this type of cover. Also, if he finds any other salamanders (or frogs, lizards, snakes), have him take photos and I will identify those for him. The native species are much easier!

Enjoy the sun and full moon today!

Best,

Lisa

Response from Chris:

. . . this is super interesting. I’ve had vagrant plenty of other things but never a salamander . . .

I’m learning on this one — not familiar with Batrachoseps species. There are a ton of them!

I will be examining field marks, etc. in references (without that currently — boy it seems like any one of the species of slender are likely as all appear super similar in first blush). They are super cool!

Not familiar so much with south OR, CA and southward — limited range beasties to those areas — been to Siskiyou’s three times (mainly to clean lint off walls of OR Caves NM), CA twice, and Mexico once. Not the guy for things endemic to those areas…but I would love to get back down to any of those if we can ever leave our houses…fantastic areas in my brief experiences.

. . . Holy cow that thing has a long tail…wow. Pretty cool — never seen one of these myself but quite interested (not seen a salamander with a tail like that — woah that is fun). . . . Cool looking little beast!

Chris

A couple weeks later . . .

From:
Lisa, Biologist, WDFW Olympia

To: Auntie Sharon, WDFW Licensing Account Rep

. . . I hope Oliver, and his salamander, are doing well. I’ve contacted a researcher at UC Berkley that will help identify it. I’m going to forward these photos. I’ll let you know if he needs more photos of specific traits. Please let Oliver know I’m still working on it.

By any chance did the family do any recent landscaping? That is one possible way this salamander may have ended up in their yard (for example, in a potted plant).

Once again, this salamander should not be released back into the wild. If they decide they do not want to keep it, Chris and I will take it.

Best,

Lisa

Response from Joe, Oliver’s dad

Wow. I just read the email to Oliver. His mouth dropped open. He is very excited to learn what type of salamander this is.

Response from Lisa . . .

Hi Sharon,

I have some information for Oliver about the salamander he found. . . If they don’t want to keep the salamander, let Chris know. Also, If the salamander dies, we’d like them to put it in a Zip-lock freezer bag and freeze it so the specimen can be sent to the researchers.

Thanks for all this! Really fun to have a good mystery to solve.

MESSAGE FOR OLIVER

_____________________________________________________________

Hi Oliver,

Excellent job with collecting more information and taking great pictures! Two researchers at University of California Berkeley have identified the salamander as a California Slender Salamander. The scientific name is Batrachoseps attenuates. The CaliforniaHerps webpage has lots of information about this species that you might find interesting.

It is very interesting that this salamander ended up in your backyard! It helps to know a little about these salamanders to understand how this may have happened. These salamanders do not have lungs. Instead they breathe through their skin. The long thin body provides lots of surface area for this. Their skin must be kept moist to capture oxygen. This is the same reason that human lungs are moist. You can test this by exhaling onto a window or mirror. The surface will become fogged. That is from the moisture in your lungs that condenses on these surfaces. You drink water to keep your lungs moist. Lungless salamanders don’t drink water. Instead, they keep their skin moist by sheltering underground or under moist decaying logs, under rocks or in moist plant litter such as leaves and decaying bark.

One of the professors that helped identify the salamander is famous in the world of salamander research. 😊 He is collecting information about slender salamanders that are introduced to new areas like the one you found. He thinks the salamanders might be transported to new areas in landscaping materials such as bags of soil, mulch, and bark. By any chance, did your family recently buy items like that? To help with his study, he needs a tiny piece of the salamander’s tail. With that, he can do genetic work that tells him more about this salamander, perhaps even where it originally lived. . . . These salamanders can rejuvenate their tails so the tail tip will grow back! The new tail tip will be darker in color than the rest of the tail.

Again, great job!

Lisa

Chris from WDFW collects sample from salamander in next few weeks

To: Joe, Oliver’s dad

From: Chris, Biologist, WDFW Olympia

Hi Joe,

Just dropping a note to see how you, Oliver, “Sally” and family are.

I wanted to relay that the sample of Sally’s tail successfully made it to the research lab and went into line for genetic analysis last Monday (I’ve not heard back yet). . . .

Jury is still out but many are voting on the most ubiquitous of them — the “California slender salamander”. There are some body features that don’t quite fit but…genetics are the way to go for these slender salamanders as they are super close in looks alone. More to come on that once the lab gets through things.

Also, I noted in one of the pictures I took . . . that your “Sally” is indeed a “Sally” — she is with eggs! You can see them in the picture I attached showing her belly — all the little pearly type things you see through her skin. . . .

She may try to hatch them. They often don’t do well in captivity and she may just reabsorb the eggs rather than lay them; but in any case it is pretty cool and the researchers were also quite excited by that. Dr. Elizabeth Jockusch is the main researcher in the genetic efforts for Sally and she has actually reared these guys. It is not easy. . . .

Wanted to pass along an update, thanks again to Oliver (and family) . . . Really appreciate all the support Oliver, you and family have provided — thanks so much!

Best,

Chris

From: Joe, Oliver’s dad

To: Chris, WDFW biologist

Chris,

Wow. Thank you for the great update and sharing the big news.

All of us were shocked and excited when I read the email aloud last night. My daughter fired off the first question, asking how Sally could have babies without having a husband?

I’m ashamed to admit this to a distinguished State Biologist, but I believe my answer involved magic salamander fairy dust…..I promise to revisit the subject with her at a later date.

Sally is doing well and we’re all looking forward to hearing the results from the genetics test.

Take care and talk soon,

Joe, Jaime, Oliver, & Sutton

November 2020

From:
Chris, WDFW biologist

To: Joe, Oliver’s dad

Hi Joe, Oliver and family!

The researchers received clear results this past Friday, late afternoon. The species of slender salamander is the California slender salamander — one of the more common “slender salamanders” if I understand correctly. Below a quick summary from the lead researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Jockusch . . .
===================================

Dear All,

Thanks to Nick Van Gilder’s sequencing work, I am pleased to say that “Sally’s” origin is clear. Sally is most definitely Batrachoseps attenuatus! At first, I thought she was an Alcatraz escapee, since that was the best match I found initially. But her mtDNA shows she (or more likely her maternal ancestral lineage) was actually a San Francisco native. . . .

I will of course be curious to hear Oliver’s reaction to this information!

Regards,

Elizabeth

From: Chris, WDFW Biologist

To: Joe, Oliver’s dad

. . . upon the “right time” for sharing with your younger crowd (for adults only here in biological explanation) — I mentioned your “fairy dust” explanation … to Dr. Jockusch — she was very amused and as a parent myself — we commiserated with your situation in that moment 😉 If it comes up — here is her very succinct explanation (essentially — many lungless salamanders go through a dance ritual, that gets pheromones and other biochemicals going, then transfer of male gametes to female, female stores male gametes; and when time is right, female allows for her eggs to be fertilized by what she has banked. She lays the fertilized eggs and in some they protect/care for them — this species, if I understand my recent readings, does not really stay around and lets Mother Nature take course on whether the eggs develop or not. Lungless salamanders are pretty crazy! On a side note — our bats here in Washington also store sperm over the fall/winter and then allow themselves to become fertilized when the environmental conditions are right in the spring…so a few animals (there are others) employ this type of technique to hedge their bet on the best environment and environmental conditions to assist in successful reproductive events.

From Elizabeth:

…salamander version of “fairy dust” is pretty good: indefinite sperm storage preceded by indirect sperm transfer, preceded (presumably) by chemical persuasion, and of course the famous “tail-straddle walk”.

There are multiple researchers across the US that are quite excited and following this — please give my regards and a big, BIG THANK YOU to Oliver — he is a Rockstar as is his Sally.

My very best to all of you and once again –

thanks! Chris

So the Mystery is solved, still questions remain. . .

· How did Freni’s dragon get to Washington from San Francisco?

· Is the California slender salamander the only salamander of its kind in Washington?

We would like to know if people encounter more California Slender salamanders in their backyards.

We welcome anyone who finds a salamander that looks like the pictures here in this blog to contact us after consulting the detailed images available at CaliforniaHerps website and at WA Herp Atlas to help you determine if the species is native.

I found an amphibian in my garden supplies, next steps . . .

· If you find an amphibian in a potted plant or in landscaping supplies from a garden center, don’t let it go. Report your sightings to our on-line public incidental wildlife observations, and give your regional WDFW office a call to find out what you should do with the animal.

· If you think you have found a non-native amphibian, put it in a container and keep it isolated from other animals. Keep the amphibian moist by including damp leaf litter and/or damp moss from the collection site in the container. Do not expose the animal to anything from a pet store, including worms or crickets. Take photographs to share with you regional WDFW office. If the species is native to Washington, you will be asked to return the animal to the exact spot where you found it right away.

· The salamander in this blog was gravid (had eggs). If she had remained in the wild, she would have laid those eggs and it is possible that could have started a new population. We don’t know the impact these salamanders might have on our native species, but there are many examples of non-native species becoming invasive and doing harm to native species and costing lots of money to control and eradicate.

· PLEASE DO NOT RELEASE PETS: Never release pet amphibians into the wild. They may carry diseases that can harm Washington’s native species.

** A note on keeping or “rescuing” wild animals. We usually ask people to leave wild animals wild and not handle them, move them or disturb them, keeping only photos and memories… Given the mystery surrounding this salamander and the fact that it was quickly identified as wildlife not originating from Washington, we specifically asked the family to keep the salamander while we investigated its origin. In most cases keeping or handling animals has high potential to do them harm.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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