Salamander Rain

Many joyful spring occurrences can be attributed to April showers – May flowers, for one; the mole salamander congress, for another. It is far more results-oriented than the Congress that takes place in our nation’s capital.

Here’s an eyewitness account.
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Last April, as I lay on my couch enjoying the warmer spring weather here east of Syracuse, I heard a distant rumble of thunder. Even though it was 10 p.m. on a rainy night in the middle of the workweek, I decided to head down to Labrador and Morgan Hill. Heading south, I turned off of route 80 and drove slowly, keeping an eye out for something crawling across the road. There was nothing to see until I went over a slight rise. Quickly, I hit the brakes hard to avoid what appeared to be a moving carpet of creatures, amphibians of all kinds. They were heading to dance and mate in small pond nearby. I was witnessing what naturalists call the Big Night.

Among the crowd of red-spotted newts, spring peepers, wood frogs, and Jefferson and blue-spotted salamanders, were hundreds of “mole” salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) that inhabit the woodlands of New York State. They normally live below the surface of the ground (hence the name) and spend almost all their lives hidden under rocks or logs.

Mole salamanders are relatively large, reaching lengths of 7 to 8 inches. They are blackish, with two rows of yellow or orange spots running down their backs.

Conditions have to be just right for their Big Night. The ground temperature must be above 36F, the air temperature above 40F and, since the salamanders must remain moist on their journey, the rain has to keep falling steadily.

Most spotted salamanders live in woods close to their mating pool. They will travel to the pool – sometimes as far as one-third of a mile – to dance and mate on one night only. Males usually arrive first.

It’s a dangerous journey. Most of the participants have to cross roadways, and the death toll can be very high. Towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire will close certain stretches of roads when the Big Night migration occurs. As another safety measure, barriers can be erected along the road’s shoulder to direct salamanders to tunnels under the road. This was done along Route 91 to the east of Labrador pond, but speaking from personal observation, it was not effective. The carnage was still high since it’s a very busy road.

Show time
When I got out of the car, I could hear the wood frogs and spring peepers calling. I pointed my flashlight in their direction and could make out a small pond where the salamanders were congregating. I was amazed by the number of them in the water, probably hundreds.

The males gather in groups called congresses, and entice females with elaborate courtship dances. The salamanders dance in large clusters with the males swimming under the females to leave a spermatophore on the bottom of the pond. The object is to get the female to pick up the spermatophores and use them to fertilize their eggs, to be deposited in a few days. Females can lay up to 200 eggs in a globular mass, which is attached to twigs or other underwater structures.

The adults leave the water to return to the forest on the next warm, rainy night, so the chances of seeing this event before it ends are slim.

Tadpoles will develop within the eggs. In a month or two, they will “hatch” and live in the vernal pond eating small aquatic creatures. When they have fully developed legs and lungs, these young salamanders crawl out of the water and go into the forest.

Keep track of the migration
The Big Night was a long night for me. I traveled from Markham Hollow to Tinker Falls and then to the ponds on Morgan Hill and found many amphibians out and about. If you’ve never witnessed this event, you would certainly be amazed at its scale. If you’re interested in finding out more, there are many great websites to visit such as,
www.u-s-c.org/html/News.htm or http://www.parcplace.org/index.html.

The Big Night usually starts in Massachusetts and slowly heads inland as the ground/air temperatures warm up. To find out when to start looking in your area, join this e-mail list, vernalpool@yahoogroups.com. It features postings and alerts from people in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. It is fascinating to track the Big Night by their posts.

Help mole salamanders on warm rainy nights in April by being alert for migrations when you drive. Slow down and do a little dodging to avoid running over too many of them. Caution: Salamanders have semi-permeable skin and cannot tolerate salts, skin oils and the heat of our hands. Salamanders should be handled as little as possible. Wear gloves. If you do not have gloves, make sure your hands are clean, free of lotions and wet.
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Just the Facts
• The word “salamander” is derived from the Greek meaning “fire lizard.”

• The scientific name for spotted salamanders is Ambystoma (“blunt mouth”) Maculatum (“spotted”).

• The family is Ambystomatidae, which means “mole salamander.” Spotted salamanders spend most of their lives hidden in dark, damp places until the Big Night.

• Bright yellow spots distinguish this secretive amphibian. Each spotted salamander has a unique pattern of spots. Some only have a few spots, but most have two uneven rows of yellow-orange spots down their back.

• A spotted salamander can live as long as 20 years in the wild and even longer in captivity.

• Their diet includes insects, worms, slugs and spiders, which they capture with their sticky tongue.

• Salamander skin is sensitive to air pollution, so a healthy population of them is a good indicator that the habitat is uncontaminated.

• When threatened, spotted salamanders secrete a mild toxin from their backs and tails so make sure to wash your hands after handling one.
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Phillip Bonn is a freelance photographer and writer specializing in nature and scenic images. His work can be seen at www.philbosphotos.com.


by Phillip Bonn