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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

Vernal Pools for Salamanders

Photo by Devin Floyd, Center for Urban Habitats.

Spring is imminent and the first rains have arrived—and so have the salamanders! With warming temperatures and all the snow melting over the past few weeks, some salamander species have been on the move looking for vernal pools. A vernal pool is a seasonal, “ephemeral” or temporary type of wetland habitat that’s formed by the accumulation of winter rains and snowfall, typically in shallow depressions in woodlands.

Virginia is home to 50 salamander species. The majority of these are nocturnal and carnivorous, preying on insects and also frogs, fish, and even other salamanders. Some of the species are fully aquatic, while others are semi-aquatic or fully terrestrial. The ones we see migrating in spring are semi-aquatic. Throughout most of the year, semi-aquatic species like spotted salamanders and eastern tiger salamanders live on land beneath rocks and logs, or in the cool, moist leaf litter of deciduous or mixed forests. Over the winter they hibernate underground, and then from late winter through early spring—peaking in March and April—hundreds of them emerge to find water, seek a mate and breed, en masse.

There’s a lot of excitement in the air when salamander enthusiasts don headlamps on a nighttime adventure in the rain, looking for these long-tailed amphibians scurrying across roads, where the critters are easiest to find. Recently an unusual emergence of spotted salamanders occurred in Albemarle County, and we thank Devin Floyd of Center for Urban Habitats for sharing his photos of these incredible animals—more than seven inches long! —crossing Rte. 29 in the Charlottesville area.

Female spotted salamanders will lay hundreds of eggs a few days after mating, and within a few weeks of development, the young salamander larvae will wriggle free and disperse, to begin solitary lives back in the woods.

Photo by Carol A. Heiser.

At my own home, I marvel at salamander eggs which appear every spring in a small water garden in my backyard. The gelatinous blobs are attached to plant stems just below the water’s surface, and there are dozens of larvae in each egg mass. Some salamander species lay egg masses containing hundreds of larvae.

Salamanders, like other amphibians, have moist, permeable skin, which makes them vulnerable to chemical pollutants and other contaminants in storm water runoff. Because these animals are very sensitive to changes in water quality, they are important indicators of environmental health. If a stream runs through your neighborhood, you can help salamanders and other aquatic wildlife by minimizing or discontinuing the use of fertilizers and herbicides on your lawn, and by allowing at least a 20-foot-wide buffer of native plants to grow along the edges of the stream. If there’s a low-lying, wet spot in your yard, avoid mowing it, and instead allow water-loving plant species to grow there, which will help retain the moisture and provide much-needed cover.

You can also improve amphibian habitat around your home by installing a small in-ground water garden that will function like a vernal pool, as long as you don’t add any fish. Also, allow leaves that fall in autumn to remain on the ground as protective cover throughout the year, rather than bagging them up and removing them off site.

For maximum benefit to wildlife, consider creating a vernal pool or constructing a small wetland on your property. See the example at Boxley’s Piney River Quarry in Amherst County.

Here are more resources for learning about salamanders and the habitats that support them:

— Carol A. Heiser, Habitat Education Coordinator

  • March 16th, 2015