The Eroticism of the Sierra Nevada Salamander

Having spent much of the last month in the mountains, forgive me for putting up a few "timeless" posts, as we used to say in the newspaper biz, instead of on what happened yesterday.

On my latest journey into the Southern Sierra, I took along a wonderful book called Sierra Nevada: The Naturalist's Companion. Being a biological nitwit, I'm not likely to retain many of the natural facts, but author Verna Johnston turns out to be a captivating storyteller, with a knack for provocative description, and I think I'll remember some of her stories.

For instance, read the following description of the reproductive act amongst the Sierra Nevada Salamander, Ensatina eschscholtzi platensis, and ask yourself — doesn't this sound kind of, um, sexy?

Solitary for the rest of the year, for a brief while during the spring breeding season these wide-eyed gray and orange-spotted amphibians travel in pairs and court. The ceremony begins with the male creeping to the side of the female, his five-inch-long body and tail carried close to the ground. As he approaches her head, he reduces his pace to very slow motion, noses her neck, then rubs her face and throat with his. If she responds by tilting her head upwards, he slides his body under the elevated head, keeping contact with her throat as he moves slowly past. He comes to a stop with his lower back under her chin and begins to massage her throat with a rotary movement of his hindquarters. If he has captured her interest, she leans her throat against his lower back and follows him as he creeps slowly forward, his back arched sharply upward, his tail trailing between her legs. This "tail walk" may go on for several hours over the forest floor.

Finally, in a spot of his choosing, the male stops, presses his vent against the substratum, and begins a lateral rocking on his rear legs. The female keeps time with counterswaying. When the male crawls onward, the spermatophore (mass of spermatozoa mixed with gelatin) that he has deposited stays behind. The pair tail-walks forward till the female squats above the capsule of sperm cells. She pulls it into her vent and inner cloacal chamber with her cloacal lips, the male meanwhile stroking her back with his tail…

Apparently eroticism among the animals is not a topic on which there is a lot of consensus or scientific research, although at least one Canadian researcher does give talks on animal orgasm.

In the Sierra, John Muir reserved some of his sharpest scorn for those who claimed that animals were biological machines, driven solely by instinct, and incapable of pleasure. Too bad he's not around to take questions on whether salamanders enjoy their sex life, but from the following quote, I have some idea what he might say…(from "Boyhood and Youth")…

Surely all God's people, however serious and savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small microbes — all are warm with divine radium and must have lots of fun…

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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