In Manhattan, the Long-Lost Pit Bull of Salamanders For 60 years, scientists believed the Northern Dusky salamander had vanished from Manhattan. Then one day, a New York City Parks Department ecologist found a mother and her hatchlings on a rocky hillside. A robust population lives in a patch of urban woods.

In Manhattan, the Long-Lost Pit Bull of Salamanders

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Happy Earth Day! Today is Earth Day. Here in the big city we marked the occasion by hiking up to our fifth floor walk ups. We explore the concrete canyons...

MIKE PESCA, host:

We insist that our disgusting hot-dog vendors use tap water, not bottled water, for their disgusting hot dogs. Our web editor Laura Conaway recently went on another kind of urban eco-adventure, and she's here to tell us all about it. Hey, Laura.

LAURA CONAWAY: How are you doing?

MARTIN: We're doing fine. What happened to you?

CONAWAY: Well, you know, I've been sort of looking for more pastoral moments in New York, which I think is actually not a bad place to celebrate Earth Day. One of the pastoral moments I've been getting lately is on the subway when it comes out of the tunnel and is above ground, and my son Nathaniel, who's six, runs to the window. He says, look, mom, we're in the country.

MARTIN: Oh, because he sees. And you're like, no, honey, that's the Bronx.

CONAWAY: That's the Bronx. Right, I mean, two trees in a row does not make the woods. So I ended up turning to this friend of mine who's kind of a mountain man named Eric Bard who use to write for me a long time ago and recently he's been starting a website for city dwellers called naturecalendar.com. It tracks urban sightings of wildlife, big and small. Here's Eric. Let him talk to you a little bit about his naturalist method in New York City.

Mr. ERIC BARD (Creator, Naturecalendar.com): I usually go out into the woods looking for one thing that I know I'll identify correctly, and then I take pictures and notes about everything else and go home and research. So, I find that way I can keep myself focused and at the same time learn as I go.

CONAWAY: Now he's talking about city woods there. He hangs out with a bunch of city people who care for wild critters. One of them is this person Ellen Payheck (ph). She works as an ecologist for the New York City Parks Department, and she came across a journal article from 1945 that talked about a population of amphibian called the northern dusky salamander in Manhattan.

MARTIN: Salamanders in Manhattan?

CONAWAY: They're not especially rare on the east coast, but this one guy in 1945 found this population and people thought ever since that they were gone, that they were not in Manhattan, they were not in Westchester, they were just gone from here. They're all up and down the east coast, but they just couldn't hack it in the city.

MARTIN: This is a tough place for a salamander!

CONAWAY: Yeah. Come on, they need water. So, finally in 2005, Payheck and this co-worker go up to see, I don't want to tell you where they went exactly, because it's kind of a fragile spot, but they went up to see if the northern duskeys were still there, and Payheck says that they made their kind of frustrating way down this rocky bluff basically.

Ms. ELLEN PAYHECK (Environmentalist): Then we came down over one rock that had its water seeping down its side and there was that whole slope where it was muddy and a little stream trickling down. We looked under the rocks and there they were. It ranks up there with some of the things I've seen in my time here at parks. It ranks pretty high.

CONAWAY: So, 60 years later, there they were. Ellen tells my friend Eric, Eric agrees to take us on this hunt, and I got to tell you the northern dusky is common, but it's not usual.

Ms. PAYHECK: They have some pretty strong jaw muscles. If you blew them up to say dog size, you know, medium dog size, those jaw muscles would be probably outdo a pit-bulls.

MARTIN: What? Really.

CONAWAY: Yeah. They're stout little creatures. So we went out to look for them and we started out our hunt in this kind of classic city location. You'll recognize the sound. It's the back of a livery cab.

Unidentified Man (Taxi Driver): (Unintelligible)

MS. SARAH GOODYEAR: 193 and - it should be right up here.

Unidentified Man: Oh, OK.

Ms. GOODYEAR: You know where the entrance...

Mr. NATHANIEL CONAWAY: What are we doing, mom?

MARTIN: Poor Nathaniel is like, why are we looking for the salamanders?

CONAWAY: Yeah. So anyway, so this guy doesn't know how to get there. That's actually my partner Sarah Goodyear and our son Nathaniel. You can get there by subway. We got there in the wrong spot. We're looking for a place where the pipe is clogged. We're going along. There are homeless people, there's a pack of wild dogs, and then we did start finding some things. You'll recognize this, it's the universal language for living creature.

Ms. GOODYEAR: Aah! It's moving!

Mr. BARD: OK. So we are finding creepy crawlers.

Mr. CONAWAY: And all these roly-polies, mom. So much creatures. Hey, there's another roly-poly right there, see.

CONAWAY: It was kind of a lesson to me.

PESCA: What's the guy from Mutual of Omaha's name?

CONAWAY: The Wild Kingdom guy? You know, I don't know, but there we are.

PESCA: It's like you're doing that for your son. That's who he thinks you are.

CONAWAY: Yeah, basically. I mean if he can find...

PESCA: Marlin Perkins! That's it. You're Marlin Perkins.

CONAWAY: Thank you. Thank you. I mean the kid finds Wild Kingdom in a roly-poly, and then finally we did find our first northern dusky salamander. It's a beautiful slight grey critter and no lungs at all.

Mr. BARD: They get by without that, so you know, if you can do it in a less complex fashion, you know, evolution likes simplicity.

Mr. CONAWAY: Cool! Can I hold him?

Ms. GOODYEAR: Very gently.

Mr. CONAWAY: It feels good. Kind of slimy. I'm going to let it go.

MS. GOODYEAR: Let's put it on the ground.

Mr. CONAWAY: Woo! There it goes.

CONAWAY: So, Ellen Payheck says that finding the northern dusky, that it survived, is kind of miracle because even though Manhattan does have some wildlife like cocks and coyotes, they're mostly things that can run away and that can move around, and that is not the case with this fragile little northern dusky salamander.

Ms. PAYHECK: These creatures are totally subject to what we do to the surrounding territory because they're not going to cross the Harlem River Drive and then into the, you know, Harlem River and over to Queens. They're just - they're not able to do that like a hawk can fly, and so it's sort of like a little hidden treasure in our midst, and they do warn us about things that are happening in our environment, and they're cute.

MARTIN: And they're cute.

CONAWAY: And they're cute. I look at them, I see creatures that can't make it anywhere, you know, and it's making it right here in New York City and maybe that means we're doing something right and maybe, well if we can figure out what that is we can keep doing it.

PESCA: But then again the same thing can be said of Leona Helmsley.

CONAWAY: It's true, you know, you got to have life.

PESCA: Yeah. You can make it here, but nowhere else.

MARTIN: Hey, thanks, Laura.

CONAWAY: Thank you.

PESCA: You can see Eric Bard's website at naturecalender.com. Laura Conaway edits our website. We'll put on a slideshow, and check out that pit-bull of salamanders on our blog npr.org/bryantpark.

MARTIN: You learn something every day. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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