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Salamanders

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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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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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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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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