Looming on the horizon, gray and black, heavy and loud, the first rains of the year are welling up. For me, this is a time of pure joy. Aside from the fact that in Southern California people seem to forget how to drive every year when the rains begin, I revel in the the rain. Maybe this is because they are so infrequent. Their rarity however, is what makes them special. Special to me, and to the animals. When I feel the moisture rise in the air and the light tapping of water on a piece of wood outside my bedroom window, I know something good will soon come.
As the rain first touches the landscape with a light splash nothing stirs. Soon the weight is too great and the clouds release. Water falls from the sky and carves deep into the landscape. It soaks into the craving soil, and some begin to take notice.
When it is dark, and raining, and freezing cold outside, I put on my raincoat and head out. The rain that cut deep into the land awoke some of my favorite creatures. I turn on my headlamp in hope of finding some of my old friends. These harsh conditions are perfect and increase the chances of finding amphibians tenfold.
Amphibians live a fascinating lifestyle and mark the evolutionary transition from life in the seas to life on land. The first land creature evolved from some sort of lobe-finned fish, who had developed leg like appendages to crawl through thick mud. Slowly this creature evolved to walk on land, and became something quite similar to the salamanders we still have roaming our lands today.
These salamanders evolved in endless directions to give us all land animals with a backbone we have today, from birds to foxes to humans, we have a great-great-great grandpa salamander. So here I am, and after reading this I hope you will be too, hunched over shining my flashlight among the leaves and sticks on the ground. Rain hitting my face sideways, running down my collar.
Getting soaked by the rain may not be ideal for me, but the amphibians love it, and are drawn out of their hiding places for it. Many of the amphibians have lungs, and can breathe like we do, but also have the fascinating ability to breathe through their skin. Breathing through their skin requires water, as a chemical process occurring throughout their body will remove the oxygen from hydrogen molecules in the water that's touching them, and allow them to respirate.
So when it's raining, these creatures that normally must stay buried deep underground where the moisture is high enough for them to breathe, can venture to the surface and get their own party started. They will often breed in this time and venture to vernal pools in which to lay their eggs. They prefer to breed in “vernal pools” which are pools created by rainwater and are not connected to a larger body of water. They only last a short period in the rainy season. Because of this, these pools have no fish and therefore, less predators for the amphibian offspring.
The first rain of the year is often the best time to get out and see these creatures. They have been patiently waiting since the last rainy season, and come out in masses. If you are near wooded areas or next to creeks, drive slowly at night and keep your eyes peeled on the road. Often you will see an amphibian hopping or crawling across the pavement. Get out, help them across, take a picture so you can prove to your friends what a cool frog you saw.
These road crossings are common and lots of amphibians get run over. There are some communities that take action and on the first big rain of the year, all mobilize and march up and down roads transporting salamanders and frogs across, and gathering data on species diversity and density. If you are interested in these beautiful little creatures, then put on your rain boots and coat, and head out next time it pours!
All photos taken by Isaac Yelchin on a rainy night. Pictured are slender salamanders, who were all found walking the same direction within a few feet of each other. A pacific treefrog who was helped across the road. And a millipede who was also drawn to the surface by the rain.
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.