Photo by: Will Harling
Klamath River Basin visitors and residents interested in wildlife have an incredibly diverse list of animals to observe. Even the most steadfast and sharp-eyed of outdoors-obsessed folk may miss this fascinating and important creature. The Giant Pacific Salamander is a secretive animal that, like other salamanders, lives most of its life in creeks and streams but can also navigate terrestrial habitats. There are several distinct geographically limited populations of Giant Pacific Salamanders – the coastal giant salamander or Dicamptodon tenebrosus is the specific species found from Northern California into Washington and lives throughout the Klamath River Basin and the tributaries that feed it.
Of the numerous drainages that feed into the Klamath River, those least disturbed are home to the Giant Pacific Salamander. The Giant Pacific Salamander is an amphibian that can grow as long as thirteen inches and have mottled grey, brown, and black skin. Unlike their froggy cousins, salamanders have long tails that they use to swim. Most salamanders do not make vocal sounds but the Giant Pacific Salamander, or púfpuuf in the Karuk language, can make a croaky-sounding call that some say sounds like a barking dog when startled.
Female Giant Pacific Salamanders lay their eggs in slowly flowing mountain streams and creeks where they prefer the protection of rocks and cracks in streambeds. When the eggs hatch in spring young Giant Pacific Salamanders have gills that allow them to breath underwater and a long tail like those possessed by tadpoles. As they grow most Giant Pacific Salamanders develop internal lungs and legs. While less frequently expressed than some of their cousins to the north, some Giant Pacific Salamanders undergo a process called neoteny wherein they continue to have gills and spend their time entirely in the water into sexual maturity.
According to Yurok, Hupa and Karuk oral traditions, the presence of Giant Pacific Salamanders is an indication of clean spring and creek water. The larger and louder than average salamander cannot live in disrupted or polluted water and in turn is valued as an indicator species whose presence, or lack thereof, can inform people of the overall health of freshwater ecosystems. Púfpuuf are an important component in healthy Klamath Basin waterways. Hopefully people interested in seeing them in their natural habitats will have more opportunities following the removal of dams from the Klamath River.