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The World of Oregon's Weird Wildlife: Introducing you to a couple new species 

click to enlarge The work beneath the gloves...
  • The work beneath the gloves...
The work beneath the gloves...
You have to be alert while driving down the highway to observe some of Oregon's more unique forms of wildlife. Take the photo above for example. It isn't often you see one of the Giant Oregon Rock Worms, let alone get close enough to have it almost bite your leg off - and they can do it!

If you don't believe that, the next time you're driving over the Santiam Pass to Salem, slow down after you go past Suttle Lake and look at the face of the rocks opposite the lake. You can see the long vertical tunnels some of the smaller rock worms make in the rock. They are vertical to the surface, as rock worms keep their tails above the ground (to breathe) as they dig down, and their flatulence is powerful enough to blow the tunnel in half.

With just a little imagination you can see what their teeth must be like, gnawing through lava rock! It's no wonder my daughter Miriam was leaping away! Further down the highway near Detroit Reservoir, you can see where ODOT and OSU wildlife biologists have placed wire netting on the hillside in an effort to capture rock worms and sell them to zoos in other states.

Then there's the infamous Oregon Rubber Road Snake. You can tell a rubber road snake when you see one alongside the highway, they have a unique skin pattern that resembles the tread of a tire, and of course they are quite flat.

And then there's the Side-hill Gougers. These animals are remarkable; they move across steep slopes rapidly, gouging out trails (ruts) that are very noticeable as you drive through steep sided ravines, like the grade on Highway 97 into Biggs Junction.

Years ago, while coasting down the grade, Miriam shouted, "Hey, dad! What makes those ruts up the on the hillside?" Now, I'm a pretty good father, but I must admit, I dropped the ball on not providing my own child a thorough education in Oregon's wildlife.

Heck of a thing for a naturalist's kid to question. But, that's when I realized how much I had neglected telling her about Oregon's more rare wildlife. So, when we arrived at Biggs Junction I pulled in for an ice cream cone and explained to Miriam about Oregon Side-hill Gougers.

According to my research and that of my wildlife biologist friends-like Tom Rodhouse, and Frank Isaacs, scientists who have enjoyed a long association with side-hill gougers-there are two species. One form that traverses the steep hillside going north and east, and another that munches its way along hillsides going south and west.

Side-hill gougers are herbivores and are usually found only on north slopes where the grasses and other vegetation is lush. One of the special anatomical adaptations side-hill gougers have acquired over the years is their peculiarity of having legs on one side longer than the other (depending on how you look at it). This gave rise to two distinct species of gougers, the right legged and left-legged races.

One must realize that the shortened legs on the opposite side of their body (depending how you look at it) is how the animals compensate for traversing the steep ground of their habitat. This also aids digestion and keeps them from falling to their death.

Unfortunately, left-legged and right-legged gougers sometimes meet head-on on a steep hillside rut, often resulting in a brutal confrontation. Obviously, neither will - or can - turn around, so the only thing they can do is go head-to-head, like Republicans and Democrats; the outcome is usually fatal. Years ago, an old buckaroo pal witnessed such a confrontation and he said it sounded like a bunch of politicians debating a bill on the Salem Senate floor.

Journals of early wildlife biologists describe primitive gougers as wolf-sized, curly haired beasts that spent all their time with their heads in the grass, rarely looking up and made a "baaaahhhhing" sound. Later journals, however, suggest they evolved into larger animals, but still have short legs on one side (again, depending on how you look at it). But instead of the grayish, curly coat, they now possess longer, straight hair and their voices evolved into a low moaning sound, sort of a "mooooing."

So, keep watching for the rare Oregon Rock Worm, Rubber Road Snake and Side-hill Gouger. When you see one, be sure to place it on your "Life-list of Oregon Wildlife."


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