An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Amphibians

Determined Spotted Salamanders

4-17-14  spotted salamander in snow117It’s rare to get a glimpse of a Spotted Salamander – these secretive amphibians spend most of their lives hidden under rocks or logs or in the burrows of other forest animals, emerging only at night to feed and during spring mating. In central Vermont, the annual mass migration of Spotted Salamanders to their ancestral breeding pools began two nights ago, when the rain-soaked earth and rising temperatures signaled that it was time to emerge from hibernation. Unfortunately for the salamanders (and frogs) that answered the calling, temperatures dropped relatively early in the evening, and the rain turned to snow. Undaunted, these stout salamanders continued their trek through the woods, plowing their way through new-fallen snow, all in the name of procreation.

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Wood Frogs Awakening and Thawing

4-17-14 wood frog IMG_1377The duck-like quacking of recently-emerged, courting wood frogs is slightly miraculous considering that only days ago these amphibians were frozen practically rock solid. At some point in late fall or winter, as temperatures drop, they flood their bodies with blood sugar that acts as antifreeze in their circulatory system. Activity in their brains stops, their heart stops, and 45 – 60% of their body can freeze. Yet within hours of being exposed to the spring’s warming temperatures, wood frogs thaw out and start moving towards a body of water to breed.

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Tracks Reveal Spotted Salamander Defense Mechanism

12-11-13  spotted salamander & fox tracks3 007Red Foxes have a very diverse diet – birds, small mammals, snakes, frogs, eggs, insects, fish, earthworms, berries, fruit — the list is endless and this diversity is part of the reason that foxes thrive in almost any habitat. However, the fox whose tracks I was following recently passed up a meaty meal – that of a Spotted Salamander. The story the tracks tell suggests that the fox dropped the salamander after unearthing it from its hibernaculum and carrying it some distance. It’s likely that it had detected the sticky white toxic liquid that Spotted Salamanders secrete from poison glands in their skin when they are threatened. Unfortunately, detection did not occur in time to save the salamander’s life. Either its experience with the fox and/or freezing temperatures killed the salamander, preventing it from going back into hibernation. (Note red fox tracks to right of salamander.)

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Eastern Red-backed Salamanders Headed for Hibernation

11-20-13  eastern red-backed salamander 120Unless you spend time looking beneath rotting logs or sifting through the leaf litter, you’re not apt to see an Eastern Red-backed Salamander, even though they are prolific in our woods. Studies have found over 1,000 of these salamanders inhabiting one square acre of woodlands. Eastern Red-backed Salamanders are not freeze tolerant so they must spend the winter in locations that don’t freeze if they are to survive. Once the temperature drops to the 30’s and 40’s, they migrate downwards and hibernate in deep leaf litter, under rocks or in rock crevices, and as much as 15 inches under the ground in animal burrows.

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Young Pickerel Frogs Underfoot

9-6-13 young pickerel frog 049If you remember visiting a pond last April or May and hearing a low, snoring sound (the mating call of the male Pickerel Frog) you might see the end results of those snores if you re-visit the pond now. Young Pickerel Frogs the size of quarters are currently abundant on the banks of the ponds in which they grew up, as well as in nearby vegetation. After emerging from the water sometime between July and September, many of these first year frogs move into nearby fields, meadows and damp woods. They are only a few weeks away from burying themselves in mud at the bottom of the pond, where they will hibernate all winter.

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Young Spring Peepers Now The Size Of Your Baby Fingernail

8-28-13  spring peeper & Jap. beetle 066It takes roughly two months for Spring Peeper tadpoles to metamorphose into adults, and unlike other frogs, they don’t complete this process in the water. Young Spring Peepers leave their ponds at an earlier stage of development than most frogs – they have four legs and lungs when they come out of the water, but most of them also still have a tail which is absorbed shortly after they become land dwellers. Adult Spring Peepers measure roughly ¾” (males) to 1 ½” (females) in length. As you can see in this photograph, this fully metamorphosed young Spring Peeper is hardly bigger than a Japanese Beetle, and it has completely lost its tail, so it was even smaller when it hopped out of the water!

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A Frog’s Tympanum

8-15-13  green frog tympanum  051A frog’s tympanic membrane, or tympanum, is the circular patch of skin directly behind its eye that we commonly call its eardrum. It functions much like our eardrum does –the tympanum transmits sound waves to the middle and inner ear, allowing a frog to hear both in the air and below water. In addition, this membrane serves to keep water and debris from entering a frog’s ears. In some species of frogs, such as the Green Frog, American Bullfrog and Mink Frog, their gender can be determined by the size of their tympanum relative to their eye: the male’s tympanum is larger than its eye, the female’s is equal in size or smaller than its eye.

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Toadlets Dispersing

7-17-13 toadlet 021The American Toad tadpoles that hatch in May and June begin to transform into toadlets after about three weeks. Metamorphosis is a complex series of changes both external and internal. Lungs are formed, gills are absorbed, the digestive system changes from a primarily vegetarian one to a carnivorous one, legs appear and the tail is absorbed. When these changes have taken place, the toadlets leave the water but tend to linger near the pond for days or weeks. Eventually they disperse, and by July you start finding small toads in the woods and around your lawn and gardens.


Snake Jaws

garter snake with treefrog by Tom Nevins IMG_0030In this photograph taken by Tom Nevins, a Common Gartersnake is swallowing prey — a Gray Treefrog — that is much larger than the snake’s mouth. It can do this because of the structure of its jaws. The quadrate bone, which attaches the upper and lower mandibles, is not rigidly attached. Rather, it pivots, allowing vertical and horizontal rotation of the jaw. In addition, the two pieces of the lower jaw (left and right) are connected in the front of the jaw by an elastic ligament, allowing each side of the lower jaw to move independently. Due to these adaptations, a snake can consume large prey by basically walking over it with its jaws.


American Toads Calling

5-13-13 A. toad singing2 096Most of us are familiar with the American toad’s breeding call – a long trill that advertises his presence to potential mates in the area. However, American toads have three other calls, as well. A shortened version of the courtship trill, which sounds like a chirp, is given by male toad with its vocal pouch just slightly inflated. A second, release call, is often heard when a male is clasped by another male. (If you want to hear it, just pick up a male toad during the breeding season – it will vibrate as it chirps right in your hand. The combination of the call and the vibrations usually causes a clasping male to release his grip.) A fourth call, which has been recorded in the lab but not in the field, is a series of quiet clicks given by the male while clasping a female.


Pickerel Frogs Calling

5-2-13  pickerel frog IMG_9431If you’ve spent time at a pond recently and heard what sounded like someone snoring, you weren’t hallucinating! Male pickerel frogs have started calling to attract mates, and each species of frog, just like birds, has its own distinctive call. Spring peepers peep, wood frogs clack and pickerel frogs snore. Their snore isn’t long – it only lasts a second or two — but it’s unmistakable. Pickerel frogs call from under water, as well as on top of mounds of vegetation, so if you hear one and then search for it, it’s very possible you may not find it. (My sincere apologies-computer failure prevented me from posting on the previous two days.)


Spring Peepers Mating & Laying Eggs

spring peepers mating DA8A0504The mating season for spring peepers lasts two months or more, and judging from the sound that is coming from ponds and woodlands these days and nights, it is in full swing. Once a singing male is successful in attracting a female, he mounts and clasps her while depositing his sperm on her eggs. She lays up to 800 eggs, either singly or in small groups, on plants within the male’s territory. The frogs remain joined (a position known as “amplexus”) for up to four hours. After egg-laying and fertilization is completed, the female peeper returns to the woods; the male remains at the pond and resumes singing.


Frog Vocal Sacs

4-16-13  vocal sacs“Peeps” and “quacks” fill the air these days.  How is it that these frog calls travel so far?  It’s all thanks to a thin membrane , or sac, that most frogs have. Note the single inflated sac of the spring peeper, and the paired sacs on either side of the wood frog’s head. These vocal sacs act as resonating chambers, causing the male frog’s mating call to be amplified and carried far (some species of frogs can be heard over half a mile away). Most frogs have one of three basic types of vocal sacs: a single throat sac (the most common), paired throat sacs (partially separated by connective tissue) and paired lateral sacs (completely separate chambers on either side of the head). Vocal sacs are outpocketings of the floor of the frog’s mouth. When calling, a frog closes its mouth and nostrils, and expels air from its lungs through the larynx and into the vocal sacs. The vibrations of the larynx emit a sound which resonates within the vocal sacs. The frog continues calling as muscles within its body wall force the air back and forth between the lungs and vocal sac. The thickness of the vocal sac wall in frogs varies. Typically, small frogs that call in the air (spring peeper) have thin vocal sac walls, whereas those that call in the water, particularly large species (green and bull frogs) often have thick-walled vocal sacs that appear swollen, not inflated like a balloon, when filled with air.


Spring Peepers Emerging

4-8-13 spring peeper2 IMG_7463Sitting on top of the snow, still as a statue, a spring peeper gathers strength to make the long trek to open water, where, if it is a male, it will exercise its voice for the first time in many months. Like the gray treefrog and wood frog, spring peepers can freeze as solid as a rock for several months during hibernation and then, on a warm day, thaw out in a few hours and resume a normal, active life.  The formation of glucose and ice crystals that form outside of cells enable this phenomenon to occur.  Once hibernation has come to an end, peepers seek out wetlands, vernal pools and ponds to breed and lay eggs before they return to their home on the forest floor.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Immature Common Merganser Diet

Common Mergansers are primarily fish-eating ducks. Young mergansers require over half a pound of food per day during their first summer, and often supplement their fish diet with insects, mollusks, crustaceans, worms, frogs, small mammals, birds and plants. The pictured immature Common Merganser had just downed a crayfish when it spotted a frog which it succeeded in catching and eventually swallowing.


How Toads Breathe

Like all amphibians, toads breathe through their skin as well as with their lungs. When a toad is inactive the skin usually absorbs enough oxygen to meet its needs. During and after activity a toad often supplements its supply of oxygen by actively breathing air into its lungs. Unlike mammals, amphibians do not make regular and rhythmic breathing movements but bring air into their lungs spasmodically as the need arises. Air enters the toad’s mouth through its nostrils, and by raising the floor of its mouth, the toad forces the air into its lungs. (Photo is of an American Toad.)


Spring Peepers Still Calling

Although Spring Peepers emerged from hibernation about two months ago, on warm nights the males are still advertising for mates and will continue to do so into June. Let your ears guide you to the peepers as they call repeatedly, often while perched on low vegetation near water. Armed with a flashlight, look for the movement of their vocal sacs as they inflate and deflate as the peepers sing. 


Spotted Salamander Larvae

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A few short weeks ago spotted salamanders gathered at vernal pools to breed and lay eggs.  Since then their eggs have started hatching, and gilled spotted salamander larvae can now be found in these pools. The larvae are major predators and consume many insects and crustaceans, including mosquito larvae and fairy shrimp.  During the next two or three months, these larvae will develop lungs, absorb their feathery gills and begin life as terrestrial amphibians, assuming the temporary pool they’re in doesn’t dry up prematurely. (The two appendages, one on either side of its body in front of the gills, help the larva balance itself until its legs develop.)

 


Spotted Salamanders Emerge From Hibernation

Under the stealth of a rainy night, subterranean-dwelling spotted salamanders migrated to their ancestral breeding pools this week.  Groups, or “congresses,” of males gather, followed by females. Once a female locates a congress of males, she eventually pairs up with one of them. The pair of salamanders then engages in a courtship dance ending with the male depositing a tiny white packet of sperm called a spermatophore on the bottom of the vernal pool. If he has sufficiently stimulated the female, she picks up this packet into her cloaca, or vent, and fertilization takes place. The next morning the only sign that spotted salamanders have been and gone are the unclaimed spermatophores scattered on the leaves that lie on the pool bottom.  


Spring Peepers Calling

I heard my first peeper on March 18th, roughly two weeks earlier than in past years.  These tiny members of the treefrog family begin mating rituals shortly after the end of hibernation. The males gather at small pools by the hundreds. Each male establishes a small territory and begins calling the familiar high-pitched “peep” quite frequently. The louder and faster he peeps, the better his chances are of attracting a receptive female. Males usually compete in trios, and the male with the lowest-pitched call usually starts the vocal competition.  If you look closely at the peeper in the photograph you can see some snow fleas hitching a ride.  


Naturally Curious wins National Outdoor Book Award

I am delighted to be able to tell you that this morning I learned that NATURALLY CURIOUS won the Nature Guidebook category of the 2011 National Outdoor Book Awards.  I’m honored and humbled by this recognition.   http://www.noba-web.org/books11.htm


Spring Peepers Calling

You may well have heard the single “peep” of a male spring peeper emanating from the woods recently.  It does seem odd to hear this call now, often far from water, as we associate it with spring courtship.  This phenomenon occurs so regularly in the fall that herpetologists have given it a name – “fall echo.”  They speculate that peeper calling is spurred by light and temperature conditions, when fall climate conditions are similar to those of spring. 


AMERICAN TOADstool

Look closely at the base of this fungus for its true namesake.

                                     


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