Wilderness Underfoot: Spotted salamanders on the prowl

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114064218130764.jpg’, ”, ‘The spotted salamander – Ambystoma maculatum is common throughout the eastern half of the United States. This salamander has yellow or orange regularly-spaced spots on dark gray or black skin. Many people who see these creatures mistakenly call them lizards. Salamanders, however, are not reptiles. They’re amphibians, more closely related to the frogs. The easiest way to distinguish salamanders from lizards is by looking at the skin. Salamanders have smooth or warty skin, which is often moist. Lizards have dry, scaly skin. You can also tell them apart by examining their feet: salamanders don’t have toenails, lizards do. Their lifestyles are quite different as well. Salamanders are born in gel-like eggs under water, and they live at least part of their lives in water. Lizard eggs are laid on land, and these creatures rarely enter water (with exception of certain species that feed in water).’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114064219630764.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114064223730283.jpg’, ”, ‘Two ancient salamanders from Illinois –Branchiosaurus (left) and Amphibamus (right) in the tropical coal forest that covered our region 300 million years ago.’);

When early spring rains come, it’s a great time to head outdoors in search of salamanders

Spotted salamanders prefer the kind of wet, cold and dreary weather many humans find depressing. As rain melts away winter ice and snow, these creatures suddenly become active. They crawl out of their underground burrows to find mates and bodies of water in which to lay their eggs.

Growing nearly 8 inches in length, spotted salamanders are among the largest “mole salamanders”—named for their mole-like subterranean life under plant debris and in tunnels.

They start life in gooey eggs, first emerging in ponds as legless tadpoles. At this stage in their lives, salamanders have gills for breathing underwater. They feed on microscopic organisms, and then later on insect larvae. As they grow larger, they begin eating other small creatures, including young fish and adult insects. The tadpoles have no qualms with cannibalism; when the opportunity arises, they never hesitate to eat each other!

As they acquire the ability to breathe air, their gills are eventually absorbed into their bodies. Tiny legs emerge, and after the limbs are fully formed, spotted salamanders leave the water for life on land.

Adult spotted salamanders spend most of their time underground, feeding on insects, slugs, snails, and earthworms. They’re most common in woodlands that have ponds or wetlands nearby.

Remarkably, the spotted salamander can live up to 30 years, returning each breeding season to the same pond from which it first emerged.

From the Feb. 22-28, 2006, issue

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