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Fight for survival: A nature story

July 30, 2008
A lot of us have played in creek beds or around rocks and have found small salamanders shading themselves from the warm sun. Salamanders come in a lot of sizes from the small purplish ones to larger orange ones with the small black spots, to even larger ones black ones with yellow spots. (Sorry, I don't know their technical names.) They all look kind of cute, although to some 'icky' would be the more appropriate word.

This cute little four-inch salamander shows his dark side as he makes a vicious attack on this bee on the Grotto Falls Trail. The bee got away after diving into a cluster of clovers, leaving the salamander to look for lunch elsewhere. (Photo by Wade Bell)
After reading this story, however, you might never look at the little salamander the same way again.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife, Peggy, and I took a three-day visit to the Smoky Mountains. Most people go there to hike the mountain trails or to see the black bears (we saw four) or to just relieve themselves of daily stress. Sometimes, however, it's what you don't see down at your feet that proves to be the most interesting.

Our second day of our visit we decided to hike up to Grotto Falls just off the Roaring Fork Auto Nature Trail. It's one of our favorite areas in the park and we've been fortunate to see several bears there. We had hiked a few hundred yards up the mountain and stopped for a quick break and a slug of water.

I just happened to look down and saw a four-inch purple salamander making his way down an extending root away from the tree trunk. The series of events that happened next completely changed my perspective of the little lizard-like amphibian.

As the salamander came down the tree root, I noticed a large bee crawling along the ground. This bee, as big as my thumbnail, was unable to fly with a broken left wing. It was unknown where the bee was going or what it was looking for.

The salamander came off the tree root and was perhaps a foot away from the bee when it made a sudden right turn toward the bee. I was stunned as I watched the salamander attack like a hungry lion and grab the bee but rear of the abdomen. The bee, apparently stingerless, worked his way free after the attack and ran to get away from his attacker.

Not one to give up, however, the salamander attacked again with lightning fast speed. As I watched all this happening I couldn't help but wish I had one of those high-definition video cameras used by videographers from The Discovery Channel and "National Geographic." This was the kind of event they love to see.

The salamander made three attacks only to see the bee run away again. At one point the bee stopped on a piece of tree bark with the salamander's nose less than a half-inch away. I'm not sure why the amphibian stopped at this point. Maybe he was looking at how much bigger the bee was than his head, wondering how he was going to get all that in his mouth. Salamanders don't have jaws that unlock like a snake's allowing a larger victim to enter the digestive system.

The bee moved again only to see the salamander keep up the chase. The bee used everything at his disposal to get away, up over a piece of bark, under a small twig, anything to create an obstacle for the salamander. None of those, however, seemed to work.

Up ahead, the bee saw something that might be the perfect obstacle for a last chance for freedom, a small patch of shamrocks that might give the protection he was looking for. The bee dove into the patch of three-leafed clovers where it was dark. The salamander quickly followed to keep from losing his prize, but this was what the bee hoped for. On the other side, the bright yellow insect crawled out and raced over a larger piece of bark. The salamander hesitated, but a few seconds later also came out on the other side, but at this point gave up the chase. The bee was free to go while the amphibian would have to look for lunch elsewhere.

After getting up to Grotto Falls, a waterfall 25 to 30 feet tall that creates its own air conditioning, even when the temperatures are in the upper 80's, we saw two young boys playing with a larger salamander next to the mountain stream. They looked at the creature as something cute to play with. I knew something different, however. The salamander has a dark side of which the bug world has to beware.

(A complete series of photos of the event can be seen on the writer's blog site at http://wade-bell.blogspot.com.)

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