Critter Camper

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ever seen a Red Hills salamander? Chances are you haven't, as they are very shy and elusive creatures.

However, one Fort Dale Academy sixth grader has caught some good glimpses of the beady-eyed creature.

&#8220It's brownish in color and about 10 inches long, which is pretty big for a salamander,” Ryan Taylor said.

Ryan, the 12-year-old son of Stuart and Vivian Taylor of Georgiana, got to learn all about Alabama's state amphibian during spring break 2006. He was chosen to participate in a &#8220Critter Camp” with Jim Godwin, a well-known herpetologist (that's a reptile and amphibian expert) who works with National Geographic.

A NG photographer documented Ryan's two-day adventure with Godwin in the wilds of Conecuh County near Evergreen.

Their experiences are featured in a colorful four-page article in the September 2006 edition of the National Geographic Explorer! Magazine.

The student publication goes out to sixth-grade classrooms across the nation.

And how did this lucky young man get such a plum assignment?

International Paper Foundation happens to be a sponsor of the National Geographic student magazine. And Stuart and Vivian Taylor both work at Chapman's IP plant.

&#8220(National Geographic) notified the offices at IP they were looking for a kid from this area for this story. And I was the right age and everything, so I got to do it,” Ryan explained.

Ryan said he learned a lot from his experience searching for the Red Hills salamander with Godwin.

&#8220He was really smart and funny. Any plant or animal you asked about, he could tell you all about it. And he'd catch anything we came across, even the snakes. He let one snake bite him several times – now, I wouldn't have done that,” Ryan said, shaking his head (a photo in the article has Godwin showing off that black racer snake to the young explorer).

Their main mission, of course, was to find the rare Red Hills salamander, a threatened species found only in Alabama.

While most amphibians spend at least part of their lives in water, the Red Hills salamander is one of the few that spends its entire life on land.

While the explorers discovered plenty of burrows (salamanders live in communities), actually catching one of these unusual creatures wasn't so easy, Ryan said. They only come out of their cozy burrows to eat, and that's usually at night.

&#8220We'd put a flashlight close to the hole and shine it in. They would start to come out, and then they'd go right back in. We could never catch one.”

While you won't be able to see Ryan posing with the Red Hills salamander, you will see him, clad in safety orange vest and hat, using rope and tackle to scale down one of the steep, tree-lined slopes where the amphibian's burrows are usually found.

The hardest part of whole experience?

&#8220Posing for about 25 million pictures the photographer took,” he said with a grin.

His time as &#8220critter camp” was fun, Ryan said. He's up for more wildlife adventures if anyone is looking for a willing &#8220kid explorer.”

&#8220They even took a picture of me with a crayfish sitting on my hat. We saw all kinds of stuff. I really did have a good time.”