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Amphibians

Spring Peepers Peeping

12-16-15 spring peeper IMG_7853The sound of a peeping Spring Peeper in December (yes, this occurred in Vermont this week) conveys to one and all that climate change is not a figment of our imagination. Amphibians are extremely sensitive to small changes in temperature and moisture due to their permeable skin and shell-less eggs. Certain species, including Spring Peepers, Grey Tree Frogs, Wood Frogs, American Bullfrogs and American Toads, are emerging and mating earlier in the year than they did historically. Causal relationships have been found between irregular climate conditions (drought, increasing frequency of dry periods and severe frosts) and decreasing (extinction in some cases) of certain amphibian species.

Behaviorally and physically, warming temperatures are having an impact on amphibians. A recent laboratory study investigated changes in amphibian metamorphosis time due to pond desiccation and whether amphibian immune systems become compromised as a result of these changes. They found that amphibian immune responses became increasingly weaker and white blood cell counts were increasingly lower with higher desiccation. As a result of climate effects, immune systems are weakened, making it more difficult for amphibians to fight off diseases.

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Green Frogs About To Take The Plunge

11-9-15 A. bullfrog 005Most Green Frogs have disappeared over the last few weeks, but this male (eardrum, or tympanum, is larger than his eye) was basking in the last bit of sunshine he will see or feel for the next five or six months. Soon he will take the plunge and bury himself in leaf litter at the bottom of the pond or lay, partially exposed, on the mud beneath the leaves. (Green frogs typically hibernate in water, but occasionally overwinter on unfrozen stream beds or seeps, as well as underground.) Aquatic turtles can shut down their metabolism to a greater extent than frogs, so they are able to survive hibernation buried in mud, where there is little oxygen, but frogs overwintering in a pond must have their skin at least partially in contact with oxygen-rich water. Green frog tadpoles will typically, but not always, overwinter prior to metamorphosing the following spring.

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Eastern Red-backed Salamanders Migrating Downwards

11-4-15 eastern red-backed salamander2 091Eastern Red-backed Salamanders reside in the leaf litter throughout the Northeast during the summer months. Here they scent-mark their territories on the forest floor with pheromones and fecal matter in order to convey information concerning their body size and gender to other Red-backed Salamanders. If the temperature soars or the humidity drops, these salamanders do just what they do in the fall – seek deeper, moister protected areas such as beneath stones, under and within rotting logs and stumps, or underground in animal burrows.

Whereas they migrate downwards in summer to avoid the heat and dry air that would impair their ability to breathe through their skin, these salamanders are avoiding the approaching cold when they migrate downwards in the fall. Red-backed Salamanders are not freeze tolerant, and thus must avoid freezing temperatures. Once ensconced in a freeze-free hibernaculum, they usually remain there until snowmelt.

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Spring Peepers Calling

9-11-15 spring peeper 174The 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, when fall climate conditions are similar to those of spring.

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Eastern Newts Emerging From Ponds

8-18 young red eft 007While you can find Eastern Newts in ponds year round, every one of these aquatic amphibians has spent part of its life on land, as a Red Eft. After the eggs hatch, Eastern Newt larvae spend the summer in the pond and at the end of the summer transform into terrestrial salamanders. At this point they crawl out of the water, and for the next three to five years live on land and are referred to as Red Efts, due to their coloring (initially they are a dark bronze color, but eventually turn orange-red). After several years of life on land, they return to the water, no longer red, but olive green. The pictured Eastern Newt/Red Eft is literally walking out of the water and onto land for the first time. It has already started to acquire the reddish color of a Red Eft, but has black spots that will fade and is yet to get the red spots that both Red Efts and Eastern Newts have. Young Red Efts can be found wandering on land in August and September looking for a protected spot such as under a log, rock, leaf litter or in the burrow of a mammal in which to spend the winter hibernating.

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Spring Peepers Metamorphosing

8-3-15 spring peeper 434Roughly two months ago Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) could be heard calling from temporary as well as permanent ponds, as males sang to attract mates. After mating took place, the females each laid hundreds of eggs, attaching them singly or in packages of two to three eggs to vegetation.

After hatching, it takes roughly two to three months for peepers to metamorphose into tiny, four-legged, land-dwelling adult frogs. They are now finding their way to shrubby growth and woodlands near ponds, where they are fairly well hidden in the leaf litter or on the lower leaves of shrubs. Here, in the shade, they feed on small insects and spiders. Roughly one-quarter-inch long at this stage, these small treefrogs will only reach one or one-and-a-half inches when fully grown. (For scale, Spring Peeper is sitting next to two red honeysuckle berries.)

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Spotted Salamander Larvae Feeding

5-28-15 spotted salamander larva-May  IMG_6665A 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 pools they are in don’t dry up prematurely.

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