Cutting back the perennials was much more exciting than usual this year! As I was cutting back a dense patch of Hosta, I noticed a striking, shiny black surface. Looking closer, I noticed yellow spots and quickly realized that I had come across a spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)! I was quite excited about this because I have always enjoyed finding little creatures like this, even as a child. I felt quite sorry to have disturbed this one, and moved it to a sheltered spot nearby. It was mid November already and I was afraid this would no longer be a suitable place to spend the winter, because of exposure to both cold temperatures and predators. Here’s a picture:
Joan Allen photo
Spotted salamanders are in the family of salamanders commonly known as mole salamanders. This name comes from their habit of living underground in the burrows of other animals or in protected places such as under rotting logs. Adult salamanders spend most of their time on land but they need moisture. They are nocturnal and emerge at night to feed or to breed.
In March to April, the adult salamanders migrate on rainy nights to the vernal pools where they were born to mate and lay eggs. Males leave small white, gelatinous masses of sperm (spermatophores) on the pool bottom. Females pick up the sperm to fertilize their eggs which are laid in gelatinous masses attached to stems or sticks underwater. Egg masses are milky white and up to 4” across. Algae grows on the mass and provides a source of oxygen and camouflage. It was even recently found that the embryos have a symbiotic algae growing inside them!
Eggs hatch in 4-7 weeks. The larvae look a lot like tadpoles but have feathery gills.
Spotted salamander larvae eat tiny aquatic creatures. They will even eat each other if food is scarce. It takes 2-4 months for larvae to develop into 2-2.5” adults. The adults emerge from the pond and can live for up to 20 years. The adult diet consists of insects, slugs and snails, centipedes and millipedes, and worms. Predators of the larval stage include fish, turtles, aquatic birds and insects, frogs and crayfish. Adults are eaten by skunks, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, and snakes. The adult salamanders are unique among vertebrates in that they are able to regenerate lost limbs and even some organs. If a leg is lost to injury or predation, it will regrow within about 3 months. These amazing little animals can even regrow a part of their brain or the lens from an eye.
National Geographic has a great video of leg regeneration (and other info) on their website for kids. I think it’s a great website for all ages. Another informative website is from New Hampshire and it has great photos of all spotted salamander life stages, even the spermatophores.
The spotted salamander occurs throughout the eastern United States and into eastern Canada. It is not endangered, just sometimes hard to find. While its numbers are currently stable in most of its range, local populations are sensitive to changes in ecology and habitat loss. Wild salamanders should not be kept as pets.
The spring migration of most kinds of salamander to their breeding pools is an event worth seeing! Sometimes local nature centers or groups have opportunities to go to known sites at this time, both to observe the salamanders (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) and also to ensure their safety as they cross roads that are in their path. If you’re lucky enough to find a salamander of any kind, be sure to leave it where you found it so it will survive.