Epic in miniature

Big rains make the tiny world of Jepson Prairie come alive

In wintertime, this region has many migrations to celebrate: the raptors soaring from the arctic to Lynch Canyon, the ruddy ducks flying in from the plains to our marshes and estuaries, the brilliant monarch butterflies wintering along the coast.

But in the flatlands between Dixon and the Delta a shorter if no less epic migration occurs at Jepson Prairie and this year’s early rain has re-awakened this rare vernal pool prairie.

Here, in land protected in perpetuity, one of the state’s iconic species, the California tiger salamanders, take their cue from the rains to make their nighttime journey from cool, wet upland burrows down to the seasonal vernal pools to await their mates. After breeding, the female attaches eggs to plants or the floor of the pond and the adults return to the uplands to live in burrows dug by Bota’s Pocket Gophers (the salamanders distinguish themselves as guests by eating bugs and keep the burrows clean).  If they avoid being eaten or drying out on the surface, the elusive dark-colored amphibians can live thirteen years.

But the pools are where the real action happens, where the young salamanders remain in the water, morphing and growing to amazing degrees: sprouting external gills and a dorsal fin, then growing lungs, then reabsorbing their gills and the fin as they prepare for a fateful moment in May or June, when they will make their final nighttime sprint to the safety of their burrows.

Thanks to the heavy rains of the past month, vernal pools formed early and Olcott turned into a full-sized playa lake capable of supporting the California Tiger Salamanders and the crustaceans on which they feed.

A tentative docent-led tour date is set for March 12th, but these are dependent on the safety of an uncertain pandemic. Watch our event calendar for up-to-date information, and in the meantime consider visiting Jepson for a self-guided tour!

Photography by  Samuel James Adams, Charlie Russell, and Doug Wirtz