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Salamanders—a Sure Sign That Spring Is Coming!

Adult Spotted Salamander. Photo by John White.

It’s that time of year to watch for migrating salamanders!  One of the species to be on the lookout for is the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), which can be found throughout most of Virginia. They belong to the group of salamanders often referred to as the mole salamanders because much of their adult life is spent underground and under logs or leaf litter foraging on invertebrates. But, when the time and weather are right, they come out in full force!  The first “warm” rains of late winter and early spring beckon spotted salamanders to leave the underground and find a place to breed.  (“Warm” is a relative term meaning just a few degrees above freezing.) These migrations to their breeding sites occur at night; since salamanders are amphibians, sunlight can threaten to dry out their moist, glandular skin. 

Vernal Pools. Photo by John Bunch.

Where are the salamanders going? They are heading off to breed in special temporary wetlands, known as vernal pools.  These depressions on the landscape, often in a forest, usually fill up with pools of water as early as mid to late fall, then last into winter and spring, but usually dry up as the hot days of summer arrive.  These temporary aquatic habitats are a relatively safe place for salamanders and other amphibians to breed, since no fish can live in them and predate on their eggs and larvae.  If you find a vernal pool, at this special time of year, during a big rain at night, watch where you step!  Salamanders may be out by the hundreds, crawling along the ground to get to the pool!  The life cycle of salamanders is completely dependent upon these special wetland habitats.

Training at a vernal pool. Photo by Lee Hesler.

Vernal pools can be very small, often overlooked!  Being rather dynamic and small makes them difficult for natural resource managers to pinpoint, manage, and map.  To help with this, Virginia is lucky to have a large group of volunteers fascinated with this unique habitat, Virginia Master Naturalists (VMN)!  Several chapters of VMN have been working with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), Virginia Commonwealth University’s VCU Rice Rivers Center, and other state, local, and federal agencies, and other groups to get training and to find, identify, and monitor vernal pools on public lands.  After training is provided by VCU, VMN, and VDGIF (and maybe others in the future), small teams form at each chapter and coordinate with the respective resource manager(s) at a local public property to identify and monitor vernal pools.  The data they collect is entered into an online database, using CitSci.org, where they must join and use a log in to do so.  State agencies are able to download the data and use it for management and conservation of these important habitats. 

Remember, as you are out looking for migrating salamanders or hiking through the woods at any time of year, always be careful where you step!  Not only to avoid accidentally stepping on a salamander, but also to avoid stepping in the vernal pool. Entering vernal pools is discouraged, unless under advisement of a natural resource manager, because of the potential for deadly diseases to spread from one pool to the next. For the past few years, amphibian diseases such as Ranavirus and chytrid fungus or Bd have been known in Virginia, so disinfection protocols (compiled by PARC) are taught in the VMN trainings, for those who may enter pools at various sites.  Now, there is another disease specific to salamanders, not yet known in Virginia, but it is known to occur overseas. It’s called Bsal, which is a salamander version of the chytrid fungus.  To help prevent the spread of Bsal to the U.S., the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service just made effective an interim rule banning many species of salamanders from being imported into the country and from any interstate transport.

For further information on salamanders and vernal pools, please check out sites of VDGIF, the Virginia Herpetological Society (VHS), a Facebook page about the vernal pools in Virginia, as well as the many links provided throughout this article.

  • March 4th, 2016

Frog Friday: Are You Habitat Aware?

Did you know that releasing plants or animals from your home into the outdoors (including aquarium plants and animals) is unlawful in Virginia? In addition, they can impact native wildlife by altering habitats, introducing disease, increasing competition for food resources, and increasing predation on native wildlife and plants.

American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)5 - JW

American Bullfrog. Photo by John White.

Frogs are a particularly vulnerable group of animals to these impacts. A frog purchased from a pet store may have originated from thousands of miles away and potentially harbor a disease that if released into the outdoors, could infect our native frogs. A deadly fungus, commonly known as chytrid, has been known to spread in this manner, and is a leading cause of amphibian population declines. While it may seem harmless to release an unwanted pet fish into local water bodies and waterways, this too can cause a variety of issues, such as the potential to increase predation on our native frog eggs and tadpoles.

If you find yourself in a situation where you must relinquish a pet, please be “habitat aware” and do not release them into the outdoors, but consider the following options:

  1. Continue to care for it. Remember, part of being a responsible pet owner is recognizing that pets are a lifetime commitment.
  2. Give the animal to someone else who would like to care for it.
  3. Return it to the place where it was purchased.
  4. Donate it to a local natural history museum, nature center, animal rescue center, etc. However, do keep in mind that oftentimes these locations may already be at capacity and will be unable to take your donation.
  5. Have the animal humanely euthanized.
Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea)001

Green Treefrog. Photo by John White.

If you would like more information about this topic, please check out the following resources:

  • Habitatitude ™ – A program created through a partnership between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Sea Grant, and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.
  • Don’t Turn it Loose! (pdf) – A downloadable brochure created by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation on how to handle unwanted pets and classroom animals.

 

 

 

This article is presented as part of our year-long Virginia is for Frogs campaign. Please visit the campaign webpage to learn more about Virginia’s 27 frog species and ways that you can become involved in their conservation. Are you an educator? Check out the Virginia is for Frogs Teacher’s Corner for frog-related lesson plans and activities.

  • July 31st, 2015