Yes, you read that right. Welcome to Hillsboro.

We had an old septic tank on the property that wasn’t connected to anything useful. Whoever installed it did a pretty bad job (the inflow pipe wasn’t actually connected to anything coming out of the house), and my guess is the tank was abandoned right after installation because it didn’t work, but who knows. However it happened, this septic tank was never removed (or even used for its intended purpose, as far as we can tell), so we decided to dig it up and get rid of it:

After digging up the tank I removed the lid to have it drained. The tank was about half full of water, but there was no smell whatsoever, so it clearly wasn’t sewage in the tank. The water was clear, and at the bottom could be seen dirt, small rocks and a bunch of leaves. It looked a lot like a river bottom, which turns out to be appropriate.

When draining the tank I had a bit of a shock: something was swimming around in the water. Convinced I was just seeing a large leaf floating around I grabbed a flashlight and took a closer look, but it turned out not to be leaf at all, and there were two of them, whatever they were. After draining the tank down a bit more, I could see there were two salamanders in the tank. I took a couple of dark, blurry pictures and emailed them to a college biology professor here in town who knows about reptiles and amphibians. He told me the color patterns were a little unusual but they looked like Tiger Salamanders, aka Ambystoma tigrinum. Tiger Salamanders are fairly common in New Mexico, and apparently in the Hillsboro area as well, although I have never seen one in any of the local creeks.

Borrowing a net from another retired biology professor here in town (there are a lot of biologists and other nature-oriented scientists here in Hillsboro) I fished the two salamanders out of the tank. The larger salamander was about 8″ long and the smaller salamander was about 4 1/2″ long:

They appeared to be fairly well-fed and healthy, if slightly confused at their change in situation. I have no idea how they could have gotten in there, or how long they had been there. The tank was completely buried, with the disconnected inflow pipe being the only real way in, but this pipe was under almost three feet of dirt and completely blocked by rocks and soil. This house was unoccupied for several years before we bought it, making it unlikely these were pets carelessly flushed down the toilet, and the pipes weren’t connected anyway. The water in the tank was obviously rain and groundwater, but the nearest creek is about 600 feet away, downhill from us. There must have been a population of insects inside the tank for these salamanders to eat, but it is amazing these were able to survive and even thrive in that environment.

In the spirit of their previous home, I of course named these two unlikely residents “Number One” and “Number Two”. Gross, maybe, but destiny cannot be denied. My wife told me I was a dork. 🙂

I briefly thought about keeping these as pets, but it seemed somehow wrong to stick these in another even smaller tank, and we decided to instead release them into a local creek. The big salamander swam away before we could get a picture, but here’s the small one in its new home:

Maybe I am a dork, but they looked happier to me. 🙂 Thanks to Travis, Harley, and Randy for identification, advice, and the net.