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What’s Under That Rock?

Posted on Oct 9, 2015

As a little girl growing up in rural Western New York, I always had an affinity for animals. My mom worked at a veterinary clinic and would often take me to work with her where, at a young age, I learned to respect animals and treat them with gentleness and compassion. I also spent a lot of time in the woods going on hikes with my dad and grandpa finding whatever was along the trail or fishing out whatever was in a nearby fishing hole. For the longest time I loved all things furry, with horses, dogs, and guinea pigs being amongst my favorites. But as I grew a little older and spent more time in the woods, creeks and streams, did I discover a great enjoyment from all the slimy things too.

Northern Dusky Salamander

The Northern DuskySalamander (Desmognathus fuscus) is a common salamander in our region and frequents stream edges and banks. Their moist skin gives them an overall slimy appearance and their large back legs provide enough power to jump away from an encroaching predator.

I remember the first time I was walking along a stream bed and lifted up a rock only to be startled by a big crayfish with pinching claws quickly swishing its tail to get away from me as quickly as possible. Upon finding that, I was a little apprehensive to pick up another rock. But I kept moving along the stream and found another rock that looked promising to have something interesting living underneath it. I carefully crouched down to pick up the rock, but this time it revealed a different kind of stream dweller. It had four legs, a long body and tail, eyes on top of its head and a unique pattern specific to the individual, just like my fingerprint is specific to me. It didn’t budge and just laid flat against the mud compacted from the weight of the rock. As I watched it, I moved my hand from behind the rock and reached down with my index finger to touch it. As soon as my skin made contact, that little creature that had seemed so still and calm shot out in a wriggling motion only to wedge itself underneath another nearby rock. At first, what seemed like a rather boring critter suddenly caught my attention and has kept it ever since.

Rock Lift Surveys

Carrying out rock lift surveys in the French Creek watershed in search of some very secretive aquatic salamanders.


Mudpuppies (Necturus maculosus) have been a common find in many streams throughout our region and are an indication of healthy waters.

Mudup (1)

While I have found mudpuppies before, it is always exciting to find one under a rock, it never gets old. It is also a very fun experience to be with others that have never seen certain species of salamanders and actually finding one they haven’t seen. This mudpuppy was a “life amphibian” for a friend that joined on one of our surveys recently.

What started out as a child’s interest in salamanders and other amphibians grew throughout college, having the opportunity to study their habits and behaviors, and is being further cultivated as I now have the opportunity to study them and assist in projects geared towards conserving them. As I continue to grow up, I want to continue to learn more about these amphibious species and work to keep them around for as long as possible. Amphibians are amongst the fastest declining species on our planet and they provide not only a wealth of information regarding environmental health but also fill specific niches that no other species can fill. Salamanders convert small insects and other invertebrates into protein and the salamanders serve as protein packages for larger predators that otherwise wouldn’t gain enough energy from eating the invertebrates themselves. While they are slimy and sometimes rather strange in appearance, salamanders play an important role in many habitats and can provide a great deal of enjoyment upon their discovery when a rock is lifted.

Hellbender Face (1)

Hiding under a rock could be an Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), a salamander that I have gotten an opportunity to observe within the past couple of years. While these salamanders may look a little odd, they cause no harms to humans but definitely deserve our respect.

Hellbender Release (1.1)

It is important that whenever you find a salamander under a rock that you return it to the same place and put the rock down first so that you minimize the risk of harming the salamander.

Hellbender Release (2.1)

Happily returning home

While we still have a little bit of warm weather left, take an adventure outside and lift a rock. You never know what you might find!

Elyse Henshaw
Conservation Technician