Crawling Around in Our Southwest Forests

The Conservancy’s Ellsworth Creek preserve is known for its mighty old-growth trees, freshwater streams and thriving salmon. Here you’ll find elk roaming the forest floor and seabirds soaring through the treetops.

But like most places in nature, not all of Ellsworth Creek’s inhabitants are picturesque. This coastal preserve is also home to some creatures that are bound to make you squirm, including cyanide millipedes, Pacific giant salamanders and jumping slugs.

At Ellsworth, donations from supporters like you allow us to focus on restoration so that all creatures have a place to live and thrive. Some are slimy, poisonous or unusual—and all serve an important role in the forest.

Cyanide Millipedes

The yellow-spotted millipede, or Haraphe haydeniana, is abundant in Pacific Northwest forests. This leggy arthropod is known for its ability to emit cyanide, which produces a telltale, almond-like scent. “They emit it when attacked, and it’s a very strong smell,” said Dr. Andy Moldenke, a researcher at Oregon State University.

Fending off predators this way allows it to complete its role as a detritivore, or "macro-shredder." "They are in fact the most important detritivore, or organism that actually feeds on dead leaves and litter and turns it into feces so it can enter the soil decomposition recycling chain," Meldenke said. "From a conservation point of view they’re absolutely critical."

But they don’t fail to give folks the creeps.

“What people are totally blown away by are their mating habits,” Moldenke said. “They get together by tens of thousands to millions in one spot and mate.”

Pacific Giant Salamanders

Pacific giant salamanders can grow to be 2 feet long when measured from the tip of their snout to the end of their tails. They are plentiful at Ellsworth, where they eat bugs, fish and other amphibians. Not much is known about their life span, but other large aquatic salamanders can live up to 25 years or more. They breed in the headwaters of forest streams and spend much of their time under cover of logs or large stones.

There are many species of salamanders at the Ellsworth Creek Preserve, crawling around the forest floor hunting for dinner while trying to avoid their own predators—raccoons, other amphibians and garter snakes. All these salamanders need clean water to thrive. Water quality here is determined by the quality of forest habitat. Aggressive logging and failing forest roads muck up clean water by sending silt into streams.

Jumping Slugs

Researchers believe Washington state is actually the center of biodiversity for jumping slugs, with at least five species including the warty jumping slug (Hemphillia glandulosa), the keeled jumping slug (H. burringtoni) and Malone (H. malonei). Of the group, the dromedary jumping slug (H. dromedarius) is the Olympic gold-medal jumper. Click here to watch a video of a jumping slug in action.

When a carnivorous snail or other predator moves in to take a bite out of one of these guys, it performs its signature move – the one that earned it its name. “It’s really not jumping, it’s more like corkscrew motion. They tighten up, coil up and straighten out rapidly,” said William Leonard, a Washington resident who has contributed to numerous books and papers on invertebrates.

Though often overlooked, jumping slugs have a lot to offer. “They eat living and decomposing vegetation. They’re kind of recyclers,” Leonard said.