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Amphibians

American Toads Preparing For Winter

In the Northeast, sometime in September or October you realize that you’re no longer seeing American Toads.  This is because they are taking steps that allow them to survive over the winter.  These steps consist of either finding another animal’s burrow or digging their own (up to 20 inches or so deep) in order to hibernate below the frost line.

As the photograph illustrates, toads dig their tunnels facing forward, using their hind legs to do the digging.  Special hardened knobs on their hind feet assist them in this endeavor. As they dig deeper, the tunnel in front of them collapses.  When deep enough to hopefully avoid being frozen, they stop digging and hibernate until the soil begins to warm.  Come April or May, American Toads dig their way up to the surface of the ground and head for breeding ponds. (Photo by Ashley Wolff)

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Spring Peepers Peeping

The peeps of male Spring Peepers can be heard fairly consistently this time of year. Unlike in the spring, these calls are coming not from bodies of water, but from the woods nearby. And they are single peeps coming from individual peepers, not the chorus of “sleigh bells” one hears in the spring. This phenomenon occurs so regularly in the fall that herpetologists have given it a name – “fall echo.” They speculate that the calling of peepers is spurred by light and temperature conditions that mimic those that occur in the spring, during Spring Peeper mating season.

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Gray Treefrogs Metamorphosing

Gray Treefrogs are often heard but rarely seen, due both to their cryptic coloration as well as the fact that they are arboreal.  They tend to perch (grasping trees with their toes which bear large, adhesive, mucous-secreting disks at their tips) in vegetation surrounding swamps and ponds, where their robust, territorial and mating trilling can be heard (males call between 500-15,000 times per hour). To hear trilling Gray Treefrogs go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSkhM24Fi-k.

After choosing a mate and mating, Gray Treefrog females lay up to 2,000 eggs which hatch in 2-5 days.  For the next month or two the tadpoles breath with gills and consume vegetation.  Full-sized tadpoles are green or black with red or orange tails.  Towards the end of summer, the tadpoles begin their transformation into frogs, developing limbs and lungs, absorbing their tails and changing from a diet of plants to one of insects.

Adult Gray Treefrogs are mottled gray or green (depending on their surroundings, temperature, and humidity) and have an uncanny resemblance to lichen. Recently-metamorphosed young treefrogs such as the one pictured are a brilliant emerald green.  (Photo: young Gray Treefrog with adult Gray Treefrog inset) (Thanks to Brian Long for photo op.)

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Tadpole Maturation

5-22-19 green heron and tadpole _U1A1148The eggs of Wood Frogs, the earliest species of frog to breed in the Northeast, are just hatching and tiny Wood Frog tadpoles can be found swimming about at this time of year. This Green Heron is devouring a tadpole, but it is anything but tiny – certainly not a Wood Frog tadpole. How can this be?

The answer is that the tadpole that the Green Heron caught did not hatch this spring – it hatched last summer. Unlike Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers that mature in roughly two months, Green Frogs and American Bullfrogs can take two or even three years to metamorphose into adult frogs. By their second summer they are of substantial size. The Green Heron has caught a Green Frog or Bullfrog tadpole that has overwintered and would probably have matured this summer.

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Eastern Red-backed Salamanders Still Active

10-23-18 eastern red-backed salamander_U1A0906The Eastern Red-backed Salamander is the most abundant terrestrial vertebrate in New England.  Unlike many salamanders, it is terrestrial year-round – living, mating, laying eggs, feeding, and hibernating.

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders can occur in two color phases, lead-back and red-back. The lead-back phase salamanders are a consistent gray to black color while the red-back phase is characterized by an orange to red stripe down the length of their body and tail. In both phases, they are distinguishable by their mottled white and black undersides and five toes on their hind feet.

Due to its lack of lungs, this slender salamander must live in damp or moist habitats in order to breath. It is active into late fall, inhabiting rotting logs or living under moist leaf litter, bark, stones, etc. When cold weather really sets in, it will hibernate down to 15 inches in the soil, or in deep leaf litter or rock crevices. (Congratulations to Helen L., the first NC reader to correctly identify the latest Mystery Photo as an Eastern Red-backed Salamander!)

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Male Green Frogs Defending Territories

6-25-18 green frogs2 _U1A9296Male Green Frogs are extremely territorial. During June, July and August they establish a series of territories, often claiming each one for less than one week before moving on.

The desirability of a given territory is of utmost importance – the better the quality (amount of vegetation) of your territory the more likely it is that a female will choose you to fertilize her eggs. The more time a male spends in a high quality territory the greater the number of mates he will acquire.

Considerable aggression is displayed against other males when an individual is claiming and maintaining a territory. When a competing male arrives, a wrestling match often ensues (see photo).

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Big Night!

4-13-18 amphibsA magical migration awaits all who take note of the first rainy spring day (in the 40’s) when the rain continues into the night. Last night these conditions resulted in what herpetologists refer to as “Big Night.” While snow still covers parts of the forest, there is ample bare ground that has warmed up enough to waken hibernating frogs and salamanders at this time of year. As if silently communicating with each other, thousands and thousands of these amphibians emerge from their subterranean hibernacula on the very same night and migrate en masse to their ancestral breeding pools, known as vernal pools. They avoid the lethal sun by travelling at night, in the rain. Unfortunately, many die, as they often must cross hazardous roads in order to reach the pool where they breed every year. If you are driving in these conditions, please keep an eye out for these jaywalkers and try to avoid them. Roads can quickly become slick with their squashed bodies.

How many Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders can you find in this photograph taken on Big Night? (There are six.)  Thanks to the unbelievable generosity of Naturally Curious readers, this photograph was taken with my new camera and lens.  I cannot tell you how deeply touched I am by your kindness and generosity.

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