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Five California Animals You Will Never See

Mountain beaver | Screen capture from film by Joseph Small
Mountain beaver | Screen capture: Joseph Small

Seems you can’t go anywhere in California without seeing some kind of interesting wildlife. From coyotes in the suburbs to pumas in Griffith Park to hawks and even eagles over our freeways, California’s wild animals often make themselves readily visible.

But then there are other species that are either really rare, or strongly prefer not to be seen by humans, or who live in places most of us never get to, or all three. Californians can go their whole lives without seeing such animals even if the Californians in question are habitual outdoor wildlife watchers.

Take these five critters, for example, which are seen by only a tiny minority of Californians, usually wildlife biologists. We’re not suggesting you take this as a personal challenge and go out and try to find each one, especially since most of them live in places you’re not allowed to visit. But it’s nice to know that there are some animals left in California that live out their lives mostly unaffected by direct human influence.

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Aplodontia rufa, the mountain beaver | Photo: Jacob Kirkland, some rights reserved
Aplodontia rufa, the mountain beaver | Photo: Jacob Kirkland, some rights reserved

Mountain beaver

This forest rodent isn’t closely related to true beavers: it’s a member of a group that so resembles ancient ancestral rodents that some people call the mountain beaver a “living fossil,” a term that annoys evolutionary biologists to no end. Growing up to about a foot long (including a very non-beavery cylindrical tail) and weighing up to four pounds, the mountain beaver lives in the state’s moistest forests in the Sierra-Cascades and northwest coast, its range continuing into British Columbia.

It’s not that mountain beavers (Aplodontia rufa) are particularly rare. They exist in sufficient numbers that tree farmers in the Pacific Northwest sometimes consider them a bit of a nuisance. But there are a few reasons why you will probably never see a mountain beaver no matter how many there may be near you: 1) they’re nocturnal, 2) they’re solitary except when breeding, and 3) they spend almost all their time in extensive underground burrows, even at night.

Some populations of mountain beaver are actually rare enough to have gained protection. The Point Arena mountain beaver, Aplodontia rufa nigra, dropped to such low numbers in its coastal Mendocino County range that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as Endangered in 1991. That subspecies, which is smaller and darker than other mountain beavers, has rebounded a bit from its low of around 100 individuals.

As a whole, Aplodontia rufa is restricted by its body makeup to a specific kind of habitat. Mountain beaver kidneys can’t concentrate urine very well, so they pee a lot, so they need a lot of water. They also have trouble dealing with either heat or cold. That pretty much restricts them to moist, temperate forests. There, they work as soil builders —  gathering fresh vegetation, eating it, and then leaving their droppings in those extensive burrows, fertilizing the trees above. And they do it all without most people even knowing they exist.

Island night lizard | Photo: Ryan P. O'Donnell
Island night lizard | Photo: Ryan P. O'Donnell

Island night lizard

It’s not all that easy to see night lizards in the first place, as they tend to spend almost all their time under things: fallen trees, talus, even sheets of plywood. But with most species like the related desert night lizard, if you set out to find them you’ll see them eventually. 

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That’s unlikely to be the case with the island night lizard, Xantusia riversiana: it only lives in places you’re probably never going to be. Namely, four islands off the California coast, two of which are Navy bases closed to the public, and the others remote parts of Channel Islands National Park. The Navy-controlled San Clemente and San Nicolas islands are the species’ stronghold, with smaller populations on Santa Barbara Island, the southernmost island in the National Park, and Sutil Island, about 14 acres of rock and scrub a half mile southwest of Santa Barbara Island.

Night lizards in general are diminutive; the  desert night lizard, Xantusia vigilis, can be less than two inches long at adulthood, making it North America’s smallest lizard. But as often happens when species land on islands and are freed from both competition and predation, the island night lizard has evolved greater size than its mainland cousins. Adults can reach three to five inches in length.

The island night lizard is doing okay these days, but that hasn’t always been the case: feral goats and pigs on the island were decimating the lizards’ vegetation habitat, and feral cats were doing the same to the lizards themselves. The U.S. Navy didn’t always take the lizards’ welfare into account when planning activities like construction, trash dumping, and so forth on San Clemente and San Nicolas. The lizard was listed as threatened in 1977 by USFWS.

Since then, the Navy has become more mindful of the lizards, and invasive animals are no longer nearly the threat they once posed to the lizards, whose population now numbers in the millions. USFWS delisted the lizard in 2014, calling it sufficiently recovered.

Still, unless you happen to be stationed on San Clemente or San Nicolas by the Navy, or a visitor to the least-visited of all the islands in the Park, chances that you’ll ever see the island night lizard are slim to none.

Inyo California towhee

The Inyo California towhee.
The Inyo California towhee.| Photo: USFWS, some rights reserved

Towhees are a dime a dozen in California cities. But this desert-dwelling subspecies, Pipilo crissalis eremophilus, whose range is mainly on the China Lake Naval Weapons Station, boasts fewer than 1,000 individuals, all of them restricted to the southern Argus Range in Inyo County.

The Inyo towhee isn’t flashy, which suits its purposes just fine. Its dusky brown plumage camouflages it well against the leaf litter in the desert riparian tree stands it calls home. Like its coastal cousins, the Inyo towhee subsists on plant seeds, berries, and small insects, which it  often finds by kicking around in leaf litter.

The southern Argus Range isn’t known for its lush forests: towhee habitat there is restricted to vegetation around springs, and scientists conjecture that the Inyo towhee is descended from birds who were stranded there as the desert dried out around them. That means that threats to the springs’ vegetation were threats to the towhees. Water diversions for agriculture, mining, suburbs and military use threatened the springs survival, and off-road vehicle users routinely damaged the nearby vegetation, raising concerns about their effects on the birds. But the most pressing threat to the towhees came from feral burros, who chewed up, trampled, rolled on, and peed all over the birds’ few pieces of habitat.

USFWS listed the Inyo California towhee as a Threatened species in 1987, and that — along with legal pressure from the Center for Biological Diversity — encouraged the Bureau of Land Management to both restrict off-road vehicles in the Argus Range and to do something about the burgeoning burro population. The towhee’s numbers have grown since, and USFWS is considering delisting the birds. But given the Argus Range’s location on the way from nowhere to nowhere, and its generally rugged, unforgiving nature, it’s a rare Californian who will ever see one of these beautifully understated birds.

Limestone salamander | Photo: Henk Wallays, some rights reserved
Limestone salamander | Photo: Henk Wallays, some rights reserved

Limestone salamander

California’s a virtual factory of salamander evolution. Sprinkle a bunch of ancestral amphibians across our diverse landscape, with its pockets of moist canyons surrounded by more arid hillsides and plains, and you’re guaranteed to generate a whole lot of different kinds of salamanders as they evolve in isolation from their kin in other wet spots.

The limestone salamander, Hydromantes brunus, is a really good example of this. Restricted to just a few wet canyon walls in the Merced River watershed, in the Mother Lode foothills west of Yosemite, the limestone salamander lives just a few dozen miles from the range of its closest relative, the much more common Mount Lyell salamander, which lives in the High Sierra. Whether the limestone salamander originated from a few salamanders washing downstream, or was first split off from its kin by growing Pleistocene glaciers, the two species went their separate ways maybe 500,000 years ago.

The canyons the limestone salamander calls home aren’t nearly as well traveled as Yosemite’s crowded valleys, but people have used them for a long time nonetheless. The salamanders, first discovered by Western science in the 1940s, live on steep, mossy talus slopes (above 30 degrees in incline) on northeast-facing canyon walls, where moisture can linger within the rock piles throughout the year. That’s crucial for limestone salamanders: as part of the large tribe of lungless salamanders, they breathe through their skin, which must stay moist to allow gases to diffuse in and out. If they get dry skin, they suffocate. But if they stay moist, they’re small enough, at two to three inches long maximum, that they can get all the oxygen they need through their skin. (Bigger animals have insufficient skin surface area per unit of body mass to pull this trick off, which is why you can’t stay down at the bottom of the pool for very long.)

So limestone salamanders live in uncrowded canyons, on slopes too steep and slippery to climb easily, and they mostly stay down under the talus so they don’t dry out. That would put them out of view of all but the most determined Californians. But add to that the move a few decades ago by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (then called “Fish and Game”) to protect most of the species’ known habitat in a reserve closed to the public, and the limestone salamander becomes a truly unseeable species.

Camera trap photo of a wolverine in the Tahoe NF | Photo: CDFW
Camera trap photo of a wolverine in the Tahoe NF | Photo: CDFW

Wolverine

The wolverine (Gulo gulo,) a fierce carnivore in the weasel family, is a bit of an edge case here. It’s hard to see them elsewhere in their range, across most of the forested northern part of North America, because they’re thin on the ground and they hate being around people. But there are enough of them that it’s not impossible to see them.

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In California, though? We only know of one resident wolverine, which might not be around anymore, and it’s so shy — and living in such a remote part of the Tahoe National Forest — that no humans have ever seen it with their own eyes. We’ve had to resort to using trail cameras and such.

That’s probably just as well, given that the wolverine is an animal about the size of a small pitbull that survives in part by stealing kills from other, larger carnivores like wolves and bears. This is not a creature you want to surprise in the woods.

Wolverines are in trouble outside of California as well. As the planet warms, it gets harder and harder for female wolverines to find the reliably persistent deep snow they need to excavate their breeding dens. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been requested to consider protecting the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act, but have — in a decision slammed as a win for politics over science — refused to do so.    

Which means wolverines might be even harder to see before long.

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