“We called it the golden wonder”, says Jeremy Jackson, reminiscing about a salamander that he was the first, and last, to find in the wild 38 years ago. “I found the first one under a sheet of bark in a field and, after collecting in this field for weeks without success it was obviously something unusual. What the few photos of Jackson’s Climbing Salamander, Bolitoglossa jacksoni, that exist don’t show is the brilliance and depth of the coloration. It was an exceptionally beautiful animal”.
I am standing with Jackson in the cloud forests of the Cuchumatanes mountains in northwest Guatemala where he had discovered the elusive salamander almost four decades ago — but what had brought him here in the first place? His good friend, Paul Elias. Elias had ventured to Guatemala for the first time in 1974 and had made discoveries so remarkable that he was compelled to return. Elias writes of that first visit, “I was 18 years old and had a chance to visit Guatemala, and so I went to [eminent herpetologist] Dave Wake to ask what I could collect that would be of use to him. He gave me a one-page photocopy of a map of Guatemala and circled the Cuchumatanes.”
The Cuchumatanes mountains were, according to Wake, a final frontier for exploration in Central America and an opportunity that Elias could not resist. After being dropped off by his parents at a road rising sharply up to a karst plateau, Elias hitchhiked as far as he could away from civilization and into uncharted territory, sleeping nights on a dirt floor among “bugs, predatory spiders, scorpions and centipedes that had gathered”. He collected a couple of hundred salamanders in three weeks. “I had no guide to the species in Guatemala so I had no idea if I had anything of value or not,” he says.
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