Nature Nugget: Spotted salamanders’ night of social un-distancing

spotted salamander

Imagine spending 99% of your life alone, in a tree-root crevice or an abandoned vole burrow, a few hundred feet from where you were born. You’d dine on earthworms, snails, slugs, beetles, and occasionally stretch your legs on rainy rambles through your neighborhood leaf litter.

This would be your life if you were a spotted salamander.

Salamanders’ big night

Come the first warm, rainy nights in spring, though, and the ancient urge to procreate prompts these large (up to 9 inches long), secretive amphibians to break quarantine and head to the nearest pond. Females, full of eggs, carry a heavier load, while males have swollen glands at the base of their tails. Once in the water, a courting male and female swim circles around each other, until the male signals he’s ready to breed by wiggling his tail and beckoning her to follow him to a leaf or twig. He deposits sperm in a tiny white structure, called a spermatophore, that looks like a miniature volcano. If the female chooses, she’ll bring the sperm inside her body to fertilize her eggs.

 

Salamanders rely on forest pools

If you missed seeing salamanders in action during last week’s rainy migration, you may be able to see the unfolding of new salamander life this spring if you have any vernal pools near you. Vernal pools are like giant puddles in the forest. They have no streams coming in or out, and usually dry up later in the summer. Because they are fish-free, salamanders and frogs use them to lay eggs because larvae are less likely to be eaten.

A photosynthetic animal?

In the coming days and weeks, look for smooth, golf-ball to tennis-ball size masses of eggs that are clear, whitish, or even green.

egg mass of spotted salamander eggs

If you see green, it comes from an algae that is symbiotic with these salamanders, making them the first known photosynthetic animal!

Later in May or June, look for tiny salamander larvae with feathery external gills swimming in the pools. They emerge in midsummer to begin their solitary adult life, which will be punctuated by rainy spring nights in years to come.

Spotted salamanders live far and wide

Spotted salamanders are the most common mole salamander around here, though you can find them as far away as the Gaspe Peninsula and Texas! Two related salamanders are hard-to-find in Vermont: Jefferson salamanders and blue-spotted salamanders If you see one of these less common sallies, please let these folks know: Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas.

Is it dead? Maybe not!

Spotted salamanders are pretty expert at playing dead. This helps them survive because who wants to mess around with a dead salamander? So, if you find one and it seems dead it might not be, just leave it alone, so it can keep on doing its (mostly) quiet things.