In 1945, naturalist Carl Gans noted a colony of Northern Dusky salamanders hunkered down in Upper Manhattan. Since then, scientists have assumed the stocky amphibian with the big jaws was gone. But in August 2005, a New York City Parks Department ecologist went looking for them.
Ellen Pehek says she turned over a rock in a muddy patch and found a mother Northern Dusky with her hatchlings. "It ranks up there with some of the things I've seen in my time here at Parks," she says. "It ranks pretty high."
Modern naturalist Erik Baard has started a Web site, Nature Calendar, to track such urban sitings. Baard says city dwellers are generally easy on the environment, because they live close together and make lifestyle choices like taking public transit. But that green way of living comes at a cost.
"We're now living more stressful lives, having less natural contact," he says.
What urbanites need, he argues, is to realize that they can find nature — and the relief that comes with connecting to the natural world — in unlikely places.
Baard recently led a small group on a scouting mission for Northern Dusky salamanders. For him, their continued existence in America's most urban environment amounts to a small miracle. "They were thought to be extinct," he says. "But they were just here, living their salamander lives."