Monday, May 14, 2012

Adirondack Amphibians: The Spotted Salamander

The recent series of rain events that has occurred over the past several weeks has elevated the level of streams and rivers, reduced the threat of wildfires, and brought trail conditions back to a more typical spring muddy state.

This wet period has also helped greatly in rejuvenating vernal pools that are critical breeding areas and nurseries for many forest dwelling amphibians and has created the damp soil conditions essential to these wet-skinned animals. Among these moisture loving vertebrates that commonly occurs in stands of mature forests throughout the Adirondacks is a sizeable dark colored creature known as the spotted salamander.

Averaging between 6 and 7 inches in length, the spotted salamander is one of the longest terrestrial amphibians that exist in the Park. The bright yellow circular spots that form an irregular row on each side of its back gives this creature its name and makes it easy to recognize on those rare occasions when one is spotted.

Like most salamanders, the individuals of this species strongly prefer to confine their activities to the area just under the layer of dead leaf litter. It is in this carpet of decaying matter that this bug predator searches for worms, beetles, grubs, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, slugs and other similar invertebrates that it can grab hold of with its tongue.

Because adult amphibians have such poorly developed lungs, they often depend on the ability of their smooth, moist skin to absorb additional amounts of this gas into their system. A loss of moisture from its skin reduces the ability of this organ to diffuse this elemental compound into its blood stream. As a result, terrestrial amphibians naturally avoid places that dry their skin and limit their respiratory capabilities. Moist soil conditions are also far more attractive to the wealth of invertebrates on which the spotted salamander depends for food.

It is in the early to mid spring in the Adirondacks that the spotted salamander exits the safety of its subterranean winter retreat, however, it does not immediately rush to the closest breeding pool, as do several other amphibians. The spotted salamander ordinarily waits until the night air is completely saturated with water, such as during a period of showers or when a heavy mist is falling. Also, because this creature functions best when the surrounding temperature is close to 50 degrees, a cold rainfall that is mixed with snow is generally shunned.

Once a thermally favorably wet period develops at night, all of the salamanders within a general area make their way toward the closest pool of water that is suitable for breeding. This sensitivity to a specific temperature range is believed to synchronize the migration to their breeding sites. As is the case with the wood frog, the mating period for the spotted salamander lasts for only about a week. After this period, the adults exit the pool and journey back to the area in which they will reside for the remainder of the summer season.

Depending on the temperature of the water, their eggs hatch in about 3 weeks and it takes another 2 to 3 months before the larvae develop their primitive lungs allowing them to emerge onto land. Should these pools dry up during a prolonged period without any precipitation, the young still confine to these pools may all perish. Last year, with the abundance of the rain, these seasonal pools remained intact through the summer and were successful in allowing many young salamanders to form.

While a seasonal pool of water may not always insure the success of these immature amphibians, such places are strongly preferred over more permanent bodies of water because of the presence of predatory organisms in larger aquatic setting. Fish, frogs, turtles, ducklings and an array of large aquatic bugs are all known to gobble up any tadpole-like organisms that they happen to detect nearby. Since seasonal pools of water lack most of these larger creatures, they allow for a much higher rate of successful development of the eggs and immature amphibians compared to any permanent body of water.

The exceptionally dry period that our region experienced earlier this spring created stress on our spotted salamander population, however, recent rainy periods have made up for the lack of water earlier this spring. Continued bouts of wet weather should allow these nighttime phantom of our mature hardwood forests to function properly, and maintain the pools of water that contain the immature salamanders, along with the zillions of mosquito larvae that will soon be hatching into hungry adults.

United States Department of Transportation photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

7 Responses

  1. kerrianne says:

    i had a spotted salamander in my basement in altamont back in the middle of March — cutest thing! I resisted all foolhardy notions of adopting him and took him on a field trip! Hopefully, he likes being at the creek that runs behind our house;)

  2. I love these salamanders. When I was a kid my grandfather found one in a wood pile at my Uncles Camp. I brought it home and it ran loose in my parents basement eating spiders and other bugs down there for nearly 2 years. I then released it back into the wild.
    I look for these little spotted salamanders every time I’m out in the woods, but have yet to find another one. Still a few other types in the Adirondacks I have yet to find, but I search whenever I’m in the woods.
    Great article.

  3. stan bunal says:

    Paragraph #5 “Because adult amphibians have such poorly developed lungs, they often depend on the ability of their smooth, moist skin to absorb additional amounts of this gas into their system.” What ‘gas’ is referred to? Oxygen?
    Very good article.

  4. Tom Kalinowski says:

    Hi Stan: Thanks for your positive comment on the article, and for reading the Almanack. Yes, most amphibians use their skin to absorb some oxygen into their system.

  5. Dan Crane says:

    I fished one of these salamanders out of a freshly dug pivy pit at Big Shallow Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness many years ago. Thankfully, the pit was freshly dug and had not been used yet. The salamander was probably thankful for that as well.

  6. Bev Stellges says:

    Love your articles! Haven’t seen a spotted salamander yet but will keep an eye out. On another note, with the recent rain, there have been tons of toads/frogs crossing the road and hopping around the yard. Are they different species or all the same? Maybe an article on these guys/gals (?) would be interesting and informative.
    thanks, bev

    • Tom Kalinowski says:

      Hi Bev: Thanks for your positive comments and for reading the Almanack. The amphibians that you are seeing are toads going to ponds, marshes and lakes shores to breed. I will try to write an article on toads for early June.

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