Monday, March 23, 2009


Some animals are so beautiful, or majestic, or undeniably cute, that, when we discover that they are in decline, we invest considerable resources toward their recovery. Such species are known as, “charismatic macrofauna,” which means, roughly, “relatively large animals that most people like.” However, many species in decline are small, or unattractive, or live underwater, underground, or in the dark. They are so far off our collective radar that they are easily swept aside without an awareness of their even having been among us. Southern BC, particularly the Fraser Valley in the Abbotsford and Chilliwack areas, is home to a number of such poorly-known species at risk, including bats, shrews, frogs, a snail, a toad, a salamander, and a mole.

View of Fraser Valley and Vedder Mountain (habitat of Coastal Giant Salamander), from southwest corner of Sumas Mountain, Abbotsford, former home of Red-legged Frog, Mountain Beaver, and who knows what else? (Kind of a moot point.)

These have the misfortune of living on land that is rich in gravel deposits, or is well-suited to berry production, or is on a slope that could provide a homeowner a magnificent view. I would bet that none of these less charismatic creatures is represented in your plush toy collection. But this may soon change.

The South Coast Conservation Program Stewardship Team (SCCPST) has found a way to make the unseen seeable, the uncuddly cuddly. They have chosen two species at risk, the Coastal Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus) and the Pacific Water Shrew (Sorex bendirii), and have created appealing plush toy representations for use in educational programs, and as fund-raising articles for sale.

These species are both associated with aquatic habitats. The salamander lives in and around mountain streams, and is impacted by mountainside residential development and logging. The water shrew inhabits the edges of ponds and woodland streams, habitats that in many places have been surrounded, even buried, by subdivisions and commercial developments. Known historically from sites as far-flung as Chilliwack, Point Grey and White Rock, this species is now rarely found anywhere in the Lower Mainland.

A couple of years ago, stuffed versions of salamander and water shrew were presented to me in a restaurant by members of the SCCPST. I was impressed by the attention to detail. The bulgy eyes and mottled colour pattern of the salamander are captured nicely. The shrew even has bristly hairs on its hind feet, which, in the real creature, assist in swimming. The toys are several times life-size, which makes them easier to admire. Which is what I was doing when the server appeared. She asked, “You always take your toys with you?”

“Um,” I said.

One of the SCCPST team came to the rescue, explaining the purpose of the animals in such a clear and interesting way that the server ended up with an unexpected boost to her environmental awareness.

“Neat,” she said.

Among other activities, the SCCP Stewardship Team informs property owners that there is a chance they are sharing their land with species at risk—which many people are excited to learn—and offers information on how to protect important habitats. The salamander and water shrew are among several species that the team hopes to protect through education, and, ultimately, habitat conservation. An unexpected plush toy (a water shrew?) is the sort of conversation piece that helps spread the word.

This past weekend the SCCPST was hosting a function at the Great Blue Heron Nature Preserve, in Chilliwack, for local farmers and others who had facilitated the ongoing study and stewardship of local listed species, including the shrew and salamander. We were there by happenstance—it was all we could do not to pilfer a sandwich or muffin. They still have the stuffed toys for sale.

To purchase a salamander or water shrew for your favourite conservationist, contact the SCCP at 1-604-864-5530, or


PSYL said...

Super neat! Nothing better than making the unattractive cuddly.

If they can make some for the bat species, then my a part of my X'mas shopping for this year will be solved!

Kim and Victoria said...

That's so cool. Thanks for a great post.