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Salamanders

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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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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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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