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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/March 1900/Salamanders and Salamander Cats

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | March 1900


IN many places in the extreme Southern States, especially in what is locally known as the "piney woods," one of the most notable features is the constantly recurring mounds of yellow sand which everywhere dot and, it must be confessed, disfigure the monotonous landscape. These piles of earth are usually nearly circular in form, fairly symmetrical in contour, from six inches to two feet in diameter, and, save where they have been beaten down by rain or winds or the trampling of cattle, about half as high as they are broad. Often these sand heaps are pretty evenly distributed, sometimes so thickly as to cover at least one fourth of the soil surface. If you ask a native the cause of this singular phenomenon, which you will perhaps at first be disposed to consider a kind of arenaceous eruption which has somehow broken out on the face of Nature, your informant will sententiously reply, "Salamanders!"

All this disfigurement is indeed the work of a curious little rodent popularly so named and about the size and color of an ordinary rat. He is never seen above ground if he can possibly help it. He digs innumerable branching underground tunnels at depths varying from one to six feet, and these mounds of sand are simply the "dump heaps" which, in his engineering operations, he finds it necessary to make.

After carrying the excavated earth to the surface this cautious little miner takes the greatest pains to cover up his tracks. No

PSM V56 D0573 Pocket gopher.png
"Snap-shot" View of a Live "Salamander."

opening into his burrow is left. How he manages to so carefully smooth over his little sand mound and then literally "pull the hole in after him" is as yet unexplained. The work is mostly done at night, when observation is especially difficult. Sometimes, when he is a little belated and the early morning twilight admonishes him that it is "quitting time," he gets in a hurry and slights his work. Then a little depression at the top of the mound tells where he has made a hasty exit. Ordinarily the rounding out of the sand pile is as deftly done as though it had all been managed from above. Indeed, the feat actually accomplished by this little underground builder appears more puzzling the more it is considered. The most skilled human engineer would confess his inability to thus pile up a mound of loose sand, go down through it, leave the top perfectly smoothed over, and, with no supports save the sand itself, to so fill up the passageway above him as he went down that not the slightest mark should be left to indicate his pathway of retreat.

Even if you dig into and under one of these sand mounds you will find very little to betray the builder's whereabouts. It is seemingly all solid earth, and unless you know exactly when and where and how to dig you will probably give up the search in disgust, with your labor and your backache but no "salamander" hole for your pains. Indeed, the cunning of this little rodent in hiding his burrow is quite as conspicuous as his skill in digging it. "Strategy" is his strong point. If by any chance you come upon his burrow it is probably an old abandoned one that is closed up and leads nowhere. The chances are ten to one that his real burrow is rods if not furlongs away.

Provided you can find the last mound he has built and not more than four or five hours have elapsed since its completion, by digging diagonally to the right or left, at the distance of a foot or so, you will have a fair chance of encountering his burrow. He is probably near by, resting from the severe labors of the previous night. If you give him time to get his nap out and finish his job, your wiser plan will be to stop hunting and digging a little before you begin.

Why this little underground dweller should be called "salamander" is one of those mysteries of popular nomenclature which is seemingly inexplicable. There is certainly nothing in the habits or appearance of the animal to suggest the fabled fireproof batrachian. Like some other lovers of darkness, he has quite a number of aliases by which in various portions of the South and West he is known. "Gopher," "pouched rat," "hamster," and "muelos" are some of the titles by which he is locally known. "Salamander" appears to be the most generally accepted one.

This enterprising little rodent belongs to an ancient if not honorable family. By naturalists he is generally known as "pocket gopher," and is classed among the Geomyidæ. Some fifteen known species have been recognized, with possibly more to hear from, and with a habitat extending quite across the continent. The Florida species is probably Geomys tuza (Ord.), and though not as large as one or two others, is quite the peer of any of his cousins in enterprise and ability to look out for himself.

The illustration given is from what is probably the only photograph of a living "salamander" ever taken. Mr. Geomys is not a model "sitter." No unwilling candidate for the "rogues' gallery" has more decided views on the subject of having his picture taken. In a general way, it may be said that he doesn't pose for anybody. Precisely how this prejudice was finally overcome it is needless to state. Perseverance and "snap shots" were too much for our recalcitrant rodent. In the matter of "looking pleasant" it must be conceded that Mr. Geomys was a little intractable.

The fore legs and feet of the "salamander" are worth studying. They remind one somewhat of those of the mole, but are more stoutly built, with much longer claws, and are evidently designed

PSM V56 D0575 Dump heaps of the pocket gopher.png
"Dump Heaps" of the "Salamander."

for harder tasks. They are controlled by powerful brachial and pectoral muscles, and, as we shall see, are not only special tools adapted to special and difficult work, but work which requires an enormous expenditure of physical force.

The engineering problems which this little troglodyte has to solve are far and away ahead of any that the New York Rapid Transit Commission has to deal with. It is very much as though a single miner were placed over in Hoboken, a hundred feet below the surface, with instructions to tunnel under the Hudson River with no tools except his hands, without a chance of seeing daylight until he reached it on the New York side, and with the added conditions that all the excavated earth should be carried out at the eastern opening of the tunnel, and finally that he should obliterate all marks of his work and, as he retreated into his tunnel, pack the exit shaft above him so tightly and so deftly that it is impossible to trace its course!

How our little fur-coated engineer solves all these problems is as yet a mystery. We only know that he does it. He has a steam engine in his shoulders and shovels for hands, but his exact methods of using them is as yet largely a matter of conjecture. Only two plans of operation would seem to be possible. One would be for the "salamander" to first carry the excavated earth all to the rear into some portion of his already finished tunnel, and finally, when the outward exit is completed, to carry it back again and deposit it on the surface. This, of course, involves a double transfer of all the earth removed. It is more likely that the "salamander" first forces a narrow passageway along the line of his future tunnel in a way similar to that pursued by the mole. The latter animal has the advantage of working near the surface, and the earth always yields along the line of least resistance, which of course is upward. Four or five feet down there is no such line, and the amount of force required to push the ground aside must be something enormous. When the "salamander" comes to the upper air the work of excavation and enlargement begins. He then piles upon the surface all the earth that he can not use in obliterating his upward passageway. As the writer has frequently observed fresh sand mounds hundreds of feet from any others, he is inclined to believe that this is the real method pursued.

The exceeding care which the "salamander" takes to leave no opening into his subterranean home arises, no doubt, from his horror of snakes. In this respect no woman can surpass him. His antipathies to reptiles are probably the accumulated embodiment of hundreds of centuries of ancestral experience. He is aware that these hereditary enemies of his race are of a very investigating turn of mind, and put in a good deal of spare time when awake in crawling into and exploring any tempting hole they may discover. And so Mr. Geomys, like the sensible fellow that he is, not only takes good care to shut and lock his front gate every time he is compelled to go through it, but he blocks up the whole passageway and does his best to convince trespassers that it is all a mistake to suppose that there ever has been any roadway leading to his underground home.

Indeed, it is by taking advantage of this morbid antipathy to intruders and daylight that our little underground dweller is usually caught. If by skillful digging a recently formed burrow is reached, one may be reasonably certain that in from five to ten minutes Mr. "Salamander" will be on hand to see what has happened and to repair damages. A shotgun kept steadily aimed at the opening, and with a quick pull on the trigger the instant the slightest movement in the sand is seen, "fetches" him every time. Another very successful method is to place a strong trap right at the opening into his burrow. In making repairs our "salamander" is in too big a hurry to look very carefully where he steps, and so is quite likely to blunder into the trap. He is always caught, however, by one of his legs, and if left any length of time is quite apt to gnaw off the captive limb and thus make his escape. Spartan bravery or love of freedom surpassing this would be hard to find.

The food of Geomys bursarius appears to be exclusively vegetable. Native roots and root stocks, cones and bulbs, together with the root bark of various trees, are eaten by him, and sometimes in a very annoying way. Orange trees are peculiarly liable to his attacks. He gnaws through and around the tap root as near to the surface as he can without disturbing it or in any way calling attention to his work, and not infrequently he continues his depredations until every root of any size is eaten off. This, of course, means the death of the tree.

From the "salamander" point of view, however, the greatest food "bonanza" of all is a sweet-potato patch. "A 'possum up a 'simmon tree" or a "pig in clover" is not more alive to the delights and advantages of the situation. He not only eats all he can stuff, but invites his relatives and friends. Nor is this all. He has learned that in autumn sweet potatoes are liable to suddenly disappear, so he "takes time"—and the potatoes—"by the forelock," and packs them away in liberal measure in his burrow for winter use. So well understood are the ways and weaknesses of this underground marauder that any suspicious mound of earth in a sweet-potato field is the signal for an active campaign of extermination, which ends only in the intruder's flight or death.

The "side pockets" of the "salamander" have already been referred to. They are undoubtedly a great convenience to their owner in carrying food and possibly other things. The capacity of these cheek pouches is about sufficient to give room for a pigeon's egg. They are, however, quite extensile, and can readily be made to hold three or four times this amount. Indeed, the skin and underlying connective tissue are so elastic that these pockets can readily be turned inside out. It is claimed that the "salamander" employs his handlike fore feet to fill and empty these receptacles, using the right foot for the left pouch, and vice versa. A gentleman in Florida recently assured me that by a lucky thrust of a spade he once killed one of these mischievous rodents as he was in the very act of cutting off the roots of an orange tree. The cheek pouches of the culprit were filled with fragments of bark which he had gnawed off, doubtless to be stowed away in his burrow.

Why, in a climate where there is almost no winter, where there is very little interruption to vegetable growth and the food supply is practically unlimited, provisions should thus be stored away is somewhat difficult to explain. It is not impossible that it is simply the survival of an ancestral habit acquired during the Glacial period. Or it may be that, like the dog, the "salamander" finds the flavor of old and well-seasoned food more to his taste. All that can be positively affirmed is that this wise little rodent does, occasionally at least, thus caché his food supplies.

One of the most curious results of the existence and habits of this elusive little burrowing rodent is the development of a new and peculiar breed of Felis domestica, called "salamander" cats. Ordinary tabbys do not understand or admire the ways of Geomys bursarius, or, for some other good and sufficient feline reason, do not include him in their game list. The variety of cats in question, which, so far as the author knows, is confined to Florida, appears to have been developed spontaneously and with very little if any human agency, and is noted for its special skill in catching "salamanders," as well as a decided liking for the sport. Any Mrs. Tabby of this breed, especially if she has a family to provide for, is up betimes in the morning. The particular object of her pursuit is a remarkably early riser, and finishes his day's work before most people have begun theirs. So if there is a convenient fence around the grounds she proposes to hunt she mounts it with the first peep of day, and, with a sharp eye to landward, starts on her tour of observation. Any fresh pile of sand is closely scrutinized. The slightest movement there brings her to the mound with a spring, and she is at once crouching behind it; so when Mr. Geomys comes up in a big hurry with his next load of sand he finds somebody to meet him that is in a bigger hurry still, and so the unsuspecting victim is borne off in triumph.

An estimable lady of the writer's acquaintance who owned one of these "salamander" cats, with a single juvenile pussy to provide for, kept an accurate account of the number of these rodents which she saw this industrious mother cat bring to her offspring in a single month. The number was thirty, and as the month happened to be February this gave, of course, two more than a "salamander" a day.

One other curious observed feature of this new variety of cats is their want of fecundity. The mother tabby seldom has more than one kitten at a birth. The writer once owned a fine female of this breed that scrupulously adhered to the traditional habits of her race.

This particular pussy, like the rest of us, had her family troubles. Her one kitten—probably from its mixed parentage—was always inclined to rebel at the "salamander" diet. There was something amusing to a degree and suggestively human in the old cat's methods of discipline. When she had succeeded in catching a salamander she would always first bring it and lay it down before her mistress, to make sure of the praise and the petting. Then, with a motherly "meow," she would call her kitten. That frisky little youngster was always quite ready for his breakfast, but showed a decided preference for the "maternal font." Then the old cat would give him a "cuff" that would send him spinning. Then she would take up the "salamander" and put it down before her hopeful offspring with an air that said as plainly as words could do: "There, now! Eat that or go hungry!" Then her mother love would get the better of her and she would go to licking and petting her disobedient baby, and it would usually end in the kitten's having its own way and satisfying its hunger with milk from the "original package." By persistence and the force of example the old cat finally succeeded in accustoming her offspring to what she evidently thought the orthodox diet of her race.

The writer is quite well aware of the intrinsic difficulties involved in the spontaneous development of any new variety of cats. Still, such branching of types has occurred in the past, and of course is possible now. When his attention was first called to the matter he was inclined to consider it merely an instance of animal education. A fact that came under his personal observation seems, however, hard to reconcile with this or any theory that does not concede the hereditary transmission of acquired habits and tastes.

A kitten of the breed of cats in question was taken when very young and reared nearly a mile away from its mother. When grown it developed the same skill in hunting "salamanders," and the same love for the sport as that for which its mother was celebrated.

Dogs, of course, have long been noted for the readiness with which acquired knowledge, habits, and tastes manifest and perpetuate themselves in hereditary forms. The setter, pointer, collie, St. Bernard, and other well-known breeds will occur to everyone as illustrating this psychic plasticity. Doubtless the cat brain is somewhat less impressible, but there would seem to be good reasons for including it among the educably variable types.