An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

Amphibians

Pickerel Frogs “Snoring”

4-28-16  pickerel frog IMG_9429Pickerel Frogs emerge early in the spring from their muddy, pond bottom hibernacula, and mate in April and May in the Northeast. As part of the mating ritual, males call to attract females, with the calls resonating inside their internal vocal sacs located between their tympanum (ear drum) and foreleg (unlike Spring Peepers and American Toads, whose vocal sacs are located directly under their mouths).

These low-pitched calls resemble short “snores.” Occasionally Pickerel Frogs call from under water, but even when they are above water, their calls do not carry very far, frequently making it difficult for human ears to hear them.  Their call is similar to that of the Leopard Frog’s but lacks the short grunts of a full Leopard Frog call.  You can compare these two calls (and several others) by going to http://langelliott.com/calls-of-frogs-and-toads-of-the-northeast/ (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)

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Wood Frog Egg Matts

wood frog egg mass IMG_2760Now that normal spring temperatures have returned, the air around vernal pools is once again filled with the clacking/quacking calls of male wood frogs hoping to attract females. Once this has been accomplished, most paired wood frogs head to the same general area in the pool to mate.  The resulting egg masses, each consisting of several hundred eggs, form a communal cluster, or “egg matt,” on the surface of the water.  Eventually algae will start growing on the jelly-like substance surrounding the eggs, causing them to resemble pond slime – an effective camouflage.  The gelatin covering, the size of the communal cluster, and exposure to the sun all help the eggs to be warmer than the surrounding water and they develop quickly – a necessity if one is to metamorphose into an adult before the vernal pool dries up.

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“Big Night” Hazard

big night 2016 IMG_7612Every year in early spring on a rainy night spotted, blue-spotted, Jefferson and four-toed salamanders, wood frogs, and spring peepers leave their leaf litter and subterranean winter hibernacula and migrate to their ancestral breeding pools to mate.  Sometimes there are roads between these two sites.  Vehicles driving these roads inevitably kill thousands of salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers every year.  Concerned citizens have set up teams to try to scoop up these nocturnal travelers and escort them to the side of the road in which they were headed.  While this action definitely helps, it is hard to find enough generous volunteers to man every crossing on every road all through a rainy night.

In Monkton, Vermont, Jim Andrews, Steve Parren and Chris Slesar, along with the Lewis Creek Association and the Monkton Conservation Commission, spear-headed an effort this past year to do something about the mortality of hundreds of migrating frogs and salamanders. Grants, plus a large number of organizations and citizens, provided the manpower and finances to construct two concrete culverts under a road in a location where the road separates the breeding pools of amphibians from their upland wintering grounds.

In the past, hundreds of migrating amphibians were killed in this location by automobiles during every spring and fall amphibian migration, and it is doubtful whether the population would have been able to sustain itself over time. (In the past month, 673 salamanders and 329 frogs have safely passed through the tunnel.  In addition, a few early migrators (16) have already started coming back up hill.) Hopefully, these will be the first of many such culverts in the Northeast. For further information on the Monkton underpasses, go to:  http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2016/03/28/hundreds-saved-new-vermont-salamander-crossing/82336084/.  (photo:  spotted salamander)        

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Wood Frogs & Spring Peepers On The Move

3-29-16 road frogs 015Although the temperature hovered around 32°F.  last night in central Vermont, wood frogs and spring peepers were on the move.  Usually it is above 40° or 45° before you see the earliest of our breeding amphibians, but a few hardy souls ventured forth to their breeding pools and ponds under cover of darkness and  rain yesterday.  Those that breed in vernal pools are in a hurry to take advantage of every day, as the eggs they lay must complete metamorphosis by the time their pool dries up, often in mid- to late summer.

Both of these species of frogs are freeze tolerant.  Wood frogs are coming out of a state in which they haven’t taken a breath and their heart hasn’t beaten for several months.  Prior to hibernation they convert glycogen in their bodies into glucose, a form of antifreeze that helps prevent the water within their cells from freezing, which would kill them.  However, the water outside their cells does freeze.  Amazingly, wood frogs can survive having up to 65% of this water frozen, yet when warm weather arrives, they thaw and move about in a matter of hours.

If you rescue these woodland amphibians that are crossing roads (where so many of them get run over at night) during their migration to their breeding pools, take note of the temperature of their body.  Often they are still quite cold to the touch — colder than the air, even – which fortunately makes it difficult for them to move fast enough to escape your helping hands. (Photo: Amorous wood frogs getting a head start as they cross a road to get to breeding pool.)

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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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Male Pickerel Frogs Snoring

5-18-15 pickerel frog IMG_3937Next to the Green Frog, the Pickerel Frog is the most abundant frog in New England. It is often confused with the Northern Leopard Frog, which it closely resembles. The spots on a Pickerel Frog’s back are squarish and aligned in rows, whereas the Leopard Frog’s spots are rounded, and randomly scattered over its back. In addition, the male Pickerel Frog has bright orange on the inner surface of its hind legs, which the Leopard Frog lacks.

Recently male Pickerel Frogs have started calling to attract mates. Each species of frog, just like each species of bird, has its own distinctive call. Spring Peepers “peep, “ Wood Frogs “quack” and Pickerel Frogs “snore.” Their snore isn’t long – it only lasts a second or two — but it is 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, you may not find it. To hear a Pickerel Frog, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/pickerel_frog_VA.mp3. (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org)

Starting with today’s post, my blog will occasionally be enhanced with the sound recordings of Lang Elliott. For those of you who may not be familiar with his work, Lang Elliott has made world-renowned recordings (that are commercially available) of the vocalizations of birds, mammals, insects, frogs and toads. If you’ve ever wondered what out-of-sight creature was singing, screaming, trilling or buzzing, his CDs and books will give you the answer. To learn more about the work of this author, speaker, cinematographer, sound recordist, and nature poet, visit http://www.langelliott.com.

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Eastern Newts Dining on Wood Frog Eggs

4-28-15 newts2 329Wood Frogs mate and lay their eggs in ponds and occasionally vernal pools before heading back to their terrestrial, wooded habitat. Amphibian eggs are subject to predation by numerous predators, including leeches, fish, aquatic insects and salamanders. Eastern Newts (aquatic as larvae and adults) are carnivorous and consume insect larvae, fingernail clams, leeches and amphibian eggs, among other things. At this time of year, Wood Frog eggs are plentiful and easily accessible, as the individual masses, each consisting of 1,000 to 2,000 eggs, are deposited adjacent to each other on submerged vegetation. Hungry newts can feed for hours without moving more than an inch, and many often do. After discovering an egg mass, a newt plunges its head into the clump of eggs, grabs one and, with great shaking of its head, separates an egg from the mass and quickly swallows it. Seconds later the newt repeats this process, and continues doing so until it is satiated.

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Spotted Salamander Spermatophores

4-23 spotted salamander spermatophores 058After male spotted salamanders emerge from hibernation and arrive at their ancestral breeding (vernal) pools, they cluster in groups called congresses, await the arrival of females, pair up with one and then the pair performs a courtship dance.

Unlike some species of amphibians, the male spotted salamander does not fertilize the eggs as the female lays them. Rather, she collects his sperm into her body and internal fertilization takes place. When the female is sufficiently stimulated, the male deposits up to 80 spermatophores (pyramid-shaped plugs of mucus with a sperm capsule at the top), often on a submerged branch. The male maximizes the chances of insemination by depositing many scattered spermatophores, covering every spermatophore he encounters, even his own, with a new spermatophore. In so doing, he increases his spermatophore count, while simultaneously eliminating a rival’s spermatorphores. The female then crawls over a spermatophore and positions her vent, or cloaca, so as to allow the lips of her cloaca to detach the sperm capsule.

Within a short period of time the salamanders retreat back to the woods, rarely to be glimpsed until next spring’s breeding season. (Photo: spotted salamander spermatorphores, with sperm capsule missing on far left spermatophore)

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Aquatic Frogs Hibernating in Ponds

1-9-15  green frog IMG_0181Most aquatic frogs such as this Green Frog have been deep in hibernation for several months. A common misconception is that frogs spend the winter the way aquatic turtles do, dug into the mud at the bottom of a pond or stream. In fact, hibernating frogs would suffocate if they dug into the mud for an extended period of time. A hibernating turtle’s metabolism slows down so drastically that it can get by on the mud’s meager oxygen supply. Hibernating aquatic frogs, however, must be near oxygen-rich water and spend a good portion of the winter just lying on top of the mud or only partially buried. They may even slowly swim around from time to time.

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Juvenile Eastern Newts Leaving Ponds

eastern newt baby 137Eastern newts, those four-inch long, red-spotted, olive-green, aquatic salamanders that inhabit most ponds, breed throughout the summer and well into the fall. Their eggs hatch in three to five weeks and the aquatic larvae are equipped with gills with which they breathe for the next three months or so. By late summer and early autumn the inch-and-a-half-long larvae begin to reabsorb their gills and develop lungs and a rough-textured skin. These tiny, young salamanders start to emerge from ponds and live on land, gradually turning reddish-orange. We refer to the juvenile eastern newt salamander during its terrestrial stage as a red eft. After spending two to five years on land, red efts return to the water, regain their green coloration and live the rest of their life as aquatic eastern newts. (Photo: A juvenile eastern newt that just emerged from a pond and has yet to attain the reddish-orange color of a red eft, on a quarter for scale. The darker patch on its neck just before its foreleg is where gills were once located.)

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Eastern Red-backed Salamander Eggs Hatching

eastern red-backed salamander 043If you make a habit of looking under (and carefully replacing) rotting logs lying on the forest floor, sooner or later you will be rewarded with the discovery of an eastern red-backed salamander. These three to four-inch salamanders can be completely gray, gray with a reddish stripe down the center of the back or bright orange-red. The color of a redback is often related to elevation. Those with a stripe down the back (pictured) are usually found at upper elevations, while the gray phase often inhabits lowlands.

Eastern red-backed salamanders are entirely terrestrial, mating in the spring and fall and laying their eggs in rotting logs (particularly conifer) and leaf litter. Females remain with their eggs, defending them from predators. The larval stage of a redback is quite long –two months– and most of it takes place inside the egg, so when the eggs ( laid in the spring) hatch in the fall, the young, three-quarter-inch salamanders are within days of completing metamorphosis and transforming into adults. (This strategy eliminates the need for eastern red-backed salamanders to find standing water to complete their larval stage.)

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September Snub-Noses

9-1-14  juvenile amphibians IMG_5078Frogs and toads that hatched from eggs laid this past spring are now two to four months old, and are growing rapidly. Like snakes, frogs and toads shed their skin as they grow — unlike snakes, they eat their skin. Periodically toads and frogs stretch their bodies and then pull their loosened skin off in one piece, much like we pull off a sweater. Using their feet, they then stuff their skin under their tongue and swallow it. When frogs and toads are young and growing fast, they usually shed their skin more often than when they are older and their growth slows down. Not only is their skin a valuable source of nutrients and protein, but if it’s eaten, there is no sign left behind for predators to find.

Most young toads and frogs, with the exception of the Gray Treefrog, look like miniature adults. (Gray Treefrogs are emerald green in their youth, unlike the mottled gray/green adults they will become.) There is one characteristic at this stage that they don’t share with their elders, however, and that is their snub noses. If you’re wondering if the frog or toad you saw is a small adult or a youngster, take a closer look at its nose! If it’s unusually short and blunt, there’s a bit of growing left to do.

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Gray Treefrogs Calling

gray treefrog 021At this time of year, bird-like trills are often heard in wetlands, where male gray treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) are calling to potential mates. The chorus ramps up at night, but the songsters can be hard to find during the day, when they often hide in tree cavities or high up in the canopy. (Their large toe pads produce mucous which allows them to adhere to smooth bark.) The colors of a gray treefrog vary with the colors of its background and environmental factors such as season and humidity, but shades of gray are most common, with black blotches on the back. Variations of brown, green, and pearl-gray colors have been noted, with green being more prominent during the breeding season. Warm, humid weather seems to elicit calls from these well-camouflaged amphibians. To watch and hear a calling gray treefrog, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kd5c4p8-0M. (Thanks to Rachael Cohen for photo op.)

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Dragonfly Eclosure: A Vulnerable Time

newt eating dragonfly2 021Dragonfly larvae reside in ponds until the time comes for them to climb up stalks of emergent vegetation or adjacent rocks, split their larval skin and emerge as adults (a process called eclosure). Before it can take flight, a dragonfly has to cling to the substrate long enough to expand its wings by pumping fluid into them, and dry its exoskeleton as well as its wings. During this time the dragonfly is extremely vulnerable – not only can it not fly, but it is usually situated directly above the water. The slightest breeze can blow it from its precarious perch into the water below, where opportunistic predators such as this Eastern Newt are at the ready and make quick work of their helpless prey.

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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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