Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Spotted Salamanders

Spotted Salamanders -- © Dave Spier

I was working around the vegetable garden (no surprise there), trying to fix the fence when I lifted one of the old boards that helps suppress the weeds. Resting in one of the small-animal (vole?) runways was a Spotted Salamander, and this was a totally unexpected surprise. It's possible the salamander made these tunnels, but looking at its soft, clawless toes, I wonder how.

This species is famous for its mass migrations on the first spring night with a warm rain, usually in late March, but I always miss that event. The salamanders, like other amphibians, are heading for the nearest woodland pond or vernal pool (essentially a temporary puddle in the woods) to lay their eggs before returning to their damp, daytime hiding spots. Vernal pools lack fish - an important consideration in the survival of larval amphibians. The downside is a race against the pool drying out before the transformation of the larvae to a terrestial form.

The only time I've actually seen Spotted Salamanders in the past was uncovering them in the woods with the help of an expert leader at the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage (always the first weekend after Memorial Day when the holiday crowds are gone). That's where these photos were taken.

The Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) has a wide range from the lower Mississippi Valley to the Canadain Maritimes. Along with ten other eastern species in the genus Ambystoma, this family of amphibians is referred to as the Mole Salamanders because they stay underground most of their lives.

The Spotted is typically around seven inches long with a heavier build than most salamanders. (The record length is almost 10 inches.) Two rows of yellow spots run down the sides of its dark-brown body from head to tail. It has four toes on each front "arm" and five on each leg in back.

At night, it hunts for a variety of invertebrates including slugs and its favorite food, earthworms. Both of these diet items are in abaundance around our garden. Normally Spotted Salamanders live in moist forests where rotting logs, dead bark and leaf litter provide the right habitat for finding food and hiding. Shade from the tree canopy keeps the ground cooler and reduces drying. What's unusual is that our garden is in the open on top of a hill, quite a walk from the swamp forest at the bottom of the drumlin. Oh well, I guess the salamander knows what it's doing.

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