Banana slugs 27, newts 11
February 9, 2009 3 Comments
No, the title isn’t the score between two Bay Area school teams – I went for a hike yesterday in Big Basin, which is California’s oldest state park. Only an hour away from most locations in the mid-peninsula, the short journey there is a trip in itself. Winding mountain roads take you by the horse pastures and villas of Silicon Valley’s elite up to Skyline Blvd, where expansive views of the bay and rolling hills leading to the Pacific Ocean alternate with stately groves of redwood trees. Skyline hits Hwy 9 at Castle Rock, and you take Hwy 9 down to Rte 236, treated to more stunning vistas of lush tree topped mountains. Rte 236 takes you “straight” into Big Basin, where over 80 miles of trails await.
For our hike, we chose an 8 mile loop that led us through mostly redwood forest along numerous creeks. Being “winter”, the forest was very damp, but the trails had held up surprisingly well, and the weather that day was sunny and mild. The air smelled fresh and sweet and the undergrowth vibrant with new green.
It wasn’t long before we encountered our first banana slug. For someone who grew up with the tiny, nondescript black slugs that are common on the east coast, banana slugs never cease to astound me with their sheer out-of-this-worldness. The large, bright yellow slug (genus Ariolimax) is practically ubiquitous in this area, however, and is the mascot for UC-Santa Cruz. The ones I’ve seen have all been a solid yellow color, and are either California or Pacific banana slugs. On this particular hike, we saw 27 banana slugs, some up to 8 inches long. It seemed to me that whenever we saw a profusion of mushrooms we tended to see a slug soon after, and this makes sense given that they are fond of eating fungi, in addition to rotting plants.
As we descended and traversed the various creeks at the valley bottom, I noticed my first rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa). The first one was a baby, as it was only a few inches long and lighter in color. We eventually saw a total of 11 newts, most of them mature adults, between 6-8 inches long. Their backs are dark and roughly mottled, while their bellies are smoother and a bright orangey yellow. I was struck by their well formed hands and feet, their seeming obliviousness to us, and their relative clumsiness. They moved almost mechanically despite interruption but when placed on a slight incline they more often than not simply fell over. I’d never seen a newt before so that surprised me – I expected all lizard-types to be, if not “sticky”, then climbers in some way.
Another group of organisms that fascinates me is fungi. There was no shortage of species encountered on our hike, many I’d never seen before. Again, the suburbs of the east coast don’t really expose you to the myriad of shapes, colors, and textures found in the forest during the rainy season, so each encounter was like discovering a treasure. Below is a gallery of most of the fungi we saw.
And this shows why I might have trouble hiking – I stop every few feet to examine a new specimen of plant, bug, or fungus. Maybe I should have been some kind of field scientist…
Notes: All photos except the first (by me) were taken by Chris Doyle. Mushroom identification attempted with the help of David Fischer’s American Mushrooms and this wonderful set of photos taken of mushrooms in Big Basin state park by Ron Wolf.