Meet Illinois’ new official amphibian

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-ICBjy8HpzD.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Meet the new Illinois official state amphibian.’);

Illinois has an official state tree, bird, mammal, fossil and a host of other things, so the Legislature may soon decide it is about time that an official amphibian and reptile be named. After a primary balloting, sponsored by the Chicago Herpetological Society, several finalists were identified, and on Dec. 31 the winners were announced. The tiger salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum, won with 51 percent of the votes in the amphibian contest with the gray tree frog and the Americana toad, and the painted turtle backed into the winner’s circle with 48 percent of the vote in a three-way race with the garter snake and box turtle.

Of the major classes of vertebrates (animals with a backbone) the amphibians, which include toads, frogs, and salamanders, are the least successful. For a brief period in the earth’s history, after they evolved from fish and were able to move out of the water and onto the land, they owned the terrestrial environment. But they had the handicap of having to return to water to reproduce.

When the reptiles evolved from the amphibians, they had two distinct advantages, a skin and an egg shell that were impervious to water loss, which allowed them to occupy almost every terrestrial ecological niche. As reptile species exploded exponentially, the amphibians were almost driven to extinction, but a few managed to hang in there and survive until today. Of the surviving groups of amphibians, the salamanders face the greatest danger of being eliminated. Frogs and toads have excellent organs of locomotion, but the limbs of salamanders are weak, and their movements are very restricted. Consequently, when a developer eliminates a wetland habitat, frogs and toads can possibly find another home, but salamanders are apt to perish.

The tiger salamander is easily identified by its size and coloration. The ground color is black or dark brown and the body has numerous, irregular, yellow spots scattered over its surface. Size alone will often identify it. Only the mudpuppy and the siren ever attain a length of more than 7 ¾ inches, whereas the tiger salamander is often longer. They are probably found in every county in Illinois and are rather common in the Rock River Valley, the Chicago region, and other areas with a considerable number of ponds.

This salamander lives in moist places such as under a rock or decaying log and is mainly nocturnal in its activity. Farmers frequently encounter them under a pile of manure or other debris. Sometimes these harmless creatures wander into cellars or window wells and cause needless concern to individuals who may think they are some sort of venomous reptile. They do bear a very superficial resemblance to the poisonous, reptilian, Gila monster found in New Mexico and Arizona.

Breeding of this salamander starts in the early spring in northern Illinois, when the adults are stimulated by warm rains and seek out some woodland pond or pool, which may still be somewhat ice covered. As far as can be determined, courtship under natural conditions has never been observed, but it has been witnessed in a tank

The eggs of salamanders, like those of other vertebrate animals higher than the amphibians, are fertilized before being laid. The male salamander, however, does not deposit individual sperm cells directly into his mate’s body. At the end of the elaborate courtship, the male concludes his part of the performance by emitting a package of sperm known as a spematophore—a tiny bit of mucus containing numerous sperm cells. The female then takes the spermatophore into her body, where her eggs are fertilized.

When the eggs hatch sometime later, the small larval salamanders have gills with which to obtain oxygen from the water. The larval period is estimated to be about two months in northern climates. At the end of this developmental period, the animals leave the water, and the gills are resorbed as the lungs take over the function of respiration. Sexual maturity is reached the spring after hatching, and no one knows how long a tiger salamander may live. However, one specimen hatched in an aquarium at the University of Michigan lived for 11 years.

Tiger salamanders are sometimes successfully kept as pets in terrariums containing moss or decaying wood. They will feed vigorously on living earthworms, meal worms, or pieces of raw meat slowly waved in front on them on a pointed stick.

I, for one, fully endorse the election of the tiger salamander as the new official state amphibian and wish it continued success in an ever-increasing hostile environment.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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