Salamander hunting in Calabria

Calabria – the “toe” of Italy – is not well-known to tourists and those that do make it tend to stick to towns such as Tropea and Pizzo, on the coast.  The interior, though, is mountainous and covered with extensive forests of beech and pine.  We based ourselves in the small town of Serra San Bruno, where we were made very welcome in the hotel “La Fontinella” and took off in a different direction each day to see what we could find.

One day we made our way down to the south coast via Stilo, an historic hill town that is a maze of lanes, steps, small piazzi and badly parked cars “Italian style”.  The countryside between Stilo and the coast is mainly olive groves with some oranges and other crops.  The only reptiles we saw were Italian wall lizards, Podarcis situla, which were large, colourful and abundant.  Wild flowers are another feature of this region, mainly species such as poppies that are typical of cultivated land.  Prickly pears, Opuntia, are also common and most were flowering at this time of the year.

Beech trees in mist, Bosco di Stilo, Calabria, Italy

Beech trees in mist, Bosco di Stilo, Calabria, Italy

Mostly, however, we stayed in the mountains around Serra San Bruno and explored the forests in search of amphibians.  One of the most interesting species from the region is the fire salamander, Salamandra salamandra, which occurs only at moderate altitude and is not easy to find.  Fire salamanders give birth to live young, either in the form of free-swimming larvae or, in a few cases, to fully developed juveniles.  Here in the Bosco di Stilo they deposit their small larvae live in streams that trickle down the hillsides and we found two of these, probably born the previous autumn.  We also found some toad tadpoles in a roadside ditch and think that they were Italian fire-bellied toads, Bombina pachypus, although we were unable to find any adults despite much searching.  Apart from these we found several Italian stream frogs, Rana italica, and their tadpoles, in fast-flowing streams and torrents.

Small waterfall, Bosco di Stilo, Italy

Salamander larvae live in the backwaters of small streams and cascades such as this in the Bosco di Stilo

Just before we were due to return home we were lucky with the weather: we had a couple of wet days and this brought out the salamanders in good numbers.  We found them in a small area of beech forest, where they were easy to spot because of their bright yellow-orange coloration, characteristic of the subspecies gigliolii that lives here, and one of the more colourful forms.

Italian fire salamander, S. s. gigliolii, Calabria, Italy

Italian fire salamander, S. s. gigliolii, Calabria, Italy

Our short visit only touched on the region.  For walkers, naturalists and photographers this is a rich and varied landscape and one that we will surely re-visit in the future.

Finally, I need to thank several people who helped to direct us to the most productive areas and to the management and staff of La Fontinella for looking after us so well.

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