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Spotted Salamanders

Amphibians Migrating

3-6-17-spotted-salamander-2-img_7608Vermonters were witness to a record-breaking (early) amphibian migration in the Champlain Valley last week on March 1st, when night temperatures were in the low 50’s.   Not only did it occur a week earlier than any other previous major migration, but records show that migration for the earliest amphibians in Vermont is now approximately two to three weeks earlier than it has been during the last decade. (as reported by Jim Andrews, www.VtHerpAtlas.org).

Spotted Salamanders, Four-toed Salamanders, Eastern Red-backed Salamanders, Blue-spotted Salamanders, Jefferson Salamanders, Spring Peepers, Wood Frogs and even an American Toad were on the move. According to Andrews, “this is a concern if the weather turns really cold and the ground and ponds refreeze. If that happens, many of the early migrants (that are not freeze tolerant) could freeze and die. If the weather stays relatively mild, with only short cold snaps, they should be fine.” Weather since these sightings has been unseasonably cold, and one can only hope they survived. (Photo: Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum)

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Young Wood Frogs Getting Land Legs

7-1-16 young wood frog 104

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With the dry weather we’ve been having, there is reason to be concerned about vernal pool residents, especially those that need to undergo metamorphosis before the pools dry up.  Granted, those amphibians such as Wood Frogs and Spotted Salamanders which transform into terrestrial creatures have evolved to have very quick life cycles, due to the temporary nature of their aquatic environment, but were they quick enough this year?

A very young Wood Frog crossed my path yesterday and answered that question for me.  No bigger than a raisin, it had to have emerged from its aquatic home in the very recent past.  When you think about the changes that have to occur between egg stage and adulthood (a total of two months, and it takes three of those eight weeks for Wood Frog eggs to hatch), it is mind-boggling.  Gills disappear and lungs develop, tail is absorbed, legs develop, mouth widens, intestines adapt to a herbivore-to-carnivore switch in diet – all inside of five weeks.

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Spotted Salamander Larvae Soon To Emerge From Eggs

spotted salamander eggs2  040Roughly a month after spotted salamanders participate in frenzied courtship dances, deposit spermatophores (males) and take the spermatophores into their bodies (females), the resulting eggs have developed into larvae.  These juvenile, gilled salamanders are still contained inside the gelatinous eggs, but the eggs are dissolving fast, and the larvae will soon be swimming free within the vernal pools where the eggs were laid.

Many spotted salamander larvae do not survive this long.  Eastern newts, caddisfly larvae, leeches, fly larvae and even turtles feed on the nutritious eggs.  Meteorological conditions also contribute to the fate of spotted salamander eggs.  Their situation is especially precarious because they develop in vernal pools, which often dry up by summer’s end, thus forcing a rapid metamorphosis for amphibious inhabitants.  Hot temperatures can evaporate the water before metamorphosis is completed, and cool temperatures can slow down their development.  Inevitably some will survive to adulthood, and  the inch-and-a-half to two-inch salamanders (see insert photo), having shed their gills and developed lungs, will adapt to a terrestrial life.

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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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Effects of Cold Weather on Breeding Amphibians

4-5-16 peeper on snow IMG_7453 With spring peepers (pictured) and wood frogs just coming into voice, and some salamanders also having recently emerged from hibernation, there is concern for their welfare due to the erratic weather we are having.  According to Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, the effects of this meteorological fluctuation depend on the exact climatic conditions experienced, as well as the species affected.

Wood frogs and spring peepers, as stated in a recent post, are well equipped to survive the cold weather.  However, egg-laying has already taken place in some locations and if the eggs are exposed to the air, as opposed to being attached to a submerged branch or vegetation, and it’s cold enough, long enough, they will freeze.

Many of the mole salamanders, including spotted, Jefferson, and blue-spotted, are in the middle of migrating to or from their annual breeding pools.  Faced with freezing temperatures, they retreat temporarily into the leaf litter and thawed soil beneath, a sheltered environment where they spend all of their life except the breeding season.  An extended period of cold that freezes the ground would pose problems for these creatures, although Andrews has witnessed the survival of a blue-spotted salamander that sought shelter under rocks that were on top of frozen ground.

Many factors are involved in the effects of this phenomenon  – how warm it was before the cold spell arrived (long enough for hibernating amphibians to emerge?), how low temperatures go, how long it remains cold, the species of frog or salamander, and where it is in its breeding cycle.  The peeping and quacking we briefly enjoyed has been silenced, but not permanently and hopefully not for very long.

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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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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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