Calvin, the Navigator

This well-known salamander’s unexplained navigational super-power rivals the precision of our best GPS systems.

May 7, 2024 | | Notes from the Wild

I admit to being astonished by the ability of my phone to give me directions. I can’t comprehend how this works.

Of course, I know there are many people who have the technical knowledge to explain the wizardry involved. But if our modern navigation methods can be understood given a little time and effort, nature’s navigation systems continue to retain an air of mystery.

Monarch butterflies may use UV light and a magnetic compass to find their way. Birds might also tap into the Earth’s magnetic field. Or they may align themselves with the position of the sun, or read the stars at night, or even remember landmarks on journeys that can span thousands of kilometres.

Salmon, heading “home” to spawn, seem able to detect scent molecules from their natal streams, diluted in the immensity of the ocean. Wonder is the overarching reaction to nature’s wayfinding.

Photo by Don Scallen
With a distinctive pattern, Calvin and Salamander has been a regular feature in Don Scallen’s blog, Notes from the Wild. Photo and video by Don Scallen.

And then there is Calvin, the teenage salamander. Calvin is simply the most fascinating creature I’ve interacted with in my life. This year I rekindled our relationship on April 2.

Calvin, who I first photographed in 2010, is now at least 16 years old – assuming at least two years to reach sexual maturity.

Calvin is notable for his unique patterning. He is a piebald – partially “leucistic” for those of you with a scientific bent – salamander. Undeniably handsome, he stands out in a crowd, his identity immediately obvious.

As I’ve written before, Calvin, not only finds his way to his breeding pond in spring, but to the precise part of that pond which I refer to as his “office.” How on earth does he do this?

It can’t be the sun – he migrates at night. It can’t be the stars because he typically migrates when it’s raining. Does he smell the pond? Perhaps, but that doesn’t explain how he finds his “office.”

Calvin’s unexplained navigational super-power rivals the precision of our best GPS systems. Humbling and entirely fascinating.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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