With the warm weather yesterday I went out to some amphibian breeding ponds to see if anything was moving. Most were either still frozen or had nothing going on except a single spring peeper calling somewhere near the heron rookery off West Bath Road.
At one site, despite the fact that it was mostly covered in ice, I saw the familiar undulations of salamanders swimming through the water. These turned out to be Jefferson salamanders, which typically start a few weeks earlier than spotteds. They look a lot like spotted salamanders without spots (we have seen a few of these), but are more slender, have pointier snouts, and freakishly long toes. I also caught a glimpse of a frog, either wood or green, swimming for cover under some leaves.
Female Jefferson salamander at the edge of the pond.
There was some action back at Windhover as well. We caught some newts and a spring peeper in the buckets. The newt in the picture below thought I wanted to eat him and responded by curling his body back over itself to show me his bright orange underside (called an “unken reflex”). This is a poisonous salamander’s way of saying “if you eat me, it will suck.” This is the most extreme version of this I have ever seen; I’ve never seen the tail wrapped around the neck like this!
Female spring peeper in a bucket. She was chubby with eggs.
It’s been a long, cold, snowy winter, but it seems to finally be leaving us. That means spotted salamanders and other amphibians will be out soon for their annual vernal aquatic nuptial extravaganza. I spent some time out last night and today. The only sign of amphibian life was a very sluggish Jefferson salamander spotted by some other hikers moving over a blanket of snow at the North Chagrin Reservation.
Right now things are still rather wintry at Windhover Pond even after a lot of thawing. So, more warmth and rain is needed to wake things up. Anticipate updates on the potential timing of salamander walks within the next few weeks.
With how severe the winter weather has been for us, there are a few reasons to think it might have been good, or at least benign, for spotted salamanders:
1) A persistent blanket of snow means insulation against severe air temperatures.
2) A persistent blanket of snow also means lots of water (see below), which could create a nice pleasant moist saunter for moving amphibians, or create new or longer lasting breeding vernal pools.
3) Amphibians are ectotherms (cold-blooded), which means the amount of energy they burn is directly proportional to the temperature of their environment. So, while we spend the winter cursing the cold and running up our energy bills, ectotherms benefit by paying lower energy costs than they would during warmer years.
Still about 6 inches of snow at the pond.
Lots of snow = lots of water. This photo is taken from outside of the fence looking in. Our drift fence is currently within the perimeter of the pond in some areas.
I’ve started to see freshly metamorphosed spotted salamanders at Windhover Pond, so all the trouble the adults went through in the spring (from the frigid temperatures to being harrassed by us on the way in) was apparently worth it.
Here’s a picture of a new metamorph. As it grows, the yellow speckles will migrate into the two rows of spots that we’re accustomed to on the adults:
This is a new look for this guy. A picture of the same individual just weeks earlier would have revealed the greener color, tail fin, and external gills of an aquatic larva:
No incoming salamanders after the few rain events over the last week, so looks like they are done breeding for the year. Only 141 animals came to the Windhover pond this year, the lightest migration yet. Also the shortest, maybe owing to the long winter?
Nevertheless, larvae are on the way. Here’s a spotted salamander egg mass. Notice that this thing is larger than a female! When an egg mass is laid, it swells up with water, mostly due to the formation of a thick protective jelly-like coating. You can just start to make out the external gills forming on the developing embryos.
In other news, snapping turtles are on the move. These are only slightly more difficult to help over the fence.
I stumbled upon a few kids’ books featuring spotted salamanders and thought the information might be useful for some of our readers. They look to be a nice mix of science education and fun/engaging stories. I’ve not read them all but it looks like they receive very positive reviews. I vaguely remember reading “The Salamander Room,” featuring what looks like a red salamander, and on a few occasions (unsuccessfully) attempted to create amphibian habitats in my bedroom.
Salamander Rain: A Lake and Pond Journal by Kristin Joy Pratt-Serafini
Big Night for Salamanders by Sarah Marwil Lamstein
A Salamander’s Life by John Himmelman
The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer
We’ll have a salamander walk tonight (Monday April 14). Meet across from Bath Elementary at 8:45p. See here for additional details. The night will start off warm, but may drop down around 40 by the time we’re done. After that…1-3 inches of snow! So, we’ll try to retrieve animals from buckets before they get snowed on.
the story below from The New York Times helps put our salamander study