The Secret of Salamanders by Shane McGuire was originally published in the BFEC Newsletter, Vol. 20/No. 1, Winter 2016.
When you think of amphibians in Ohio, frogs and toads might come to mind first. Since they are so vocal it’s easy to know if they are in your area. In early spring you might hear the high-pitched chorus of the first indicators of spring, the spring peepers, or the American toad’s trilling call outside your window.
These creatures are nice to listen to but there are other amphibians that call Ohio home, including 25 salamander species. People are generally unaware of them because they spend their days hiding under leaf litter, rocks, rotting logs, and even underground. Many are just a few inches long but some can reach almost 8 inches in length. They range in colors and can have spots and specks and even stripes.
They vary in other ways too, since they are creatures that seem to like bending the rules. For instance, most land-dwelling animals have lungs. Not so for the lungless salamanders that form one of the two major Ohio salamander families (Plethodonidae). These slender, short-limbed salamanders start off as eggs in water, hatching into juvenile “larvae” equipped with gills. As adults, they lose their gills and live on land, but rather than developing lungs, they simply switch to absorbing air through their sin. This feature makes them very vulnerable to pollution (and to handling by people).
Most lungless salamanders are law-abiding amphibians and lay eggs in streams, but some non-conforming species lay their eggs away from water in moist mature forests under rotting logs and rocks. The young have gills that they will lose once they reach maturity, though some species will do so just 24 to 48 hours after hatching, making the aquatic phase of their lives very, very short. Other species may take up to four years to do so.
Mole salamanders comprise the other major salamander family in Ohio (Ambystomatidae). Though these large, stout bodied creatures do have lungs, they spend most of their adult lives living underground in mature forests.
The breeding rituals for both mole and lungless salamanders are very... intriguing. They share some similarities,as we will explore below, but a major difference for the mole family is their preference for breeding in vernal, or “spring,” wetlands. These small wetlands collect standing water during the winter thaw and heavy spring rains. Though soil may remain saturated year-round, in late summer and early fall the standing water disappears, limiting the ability of predators like fish to survive, a key benefit for amphibians.
Every spring, mole salamanders emerge from underground and migrate to the same body of water where they were born (usually a vernal wetland), to find a mate and continue the cycle. Though larvae are born with gills, these disappear as the salamanders mature and lungs develop before they begin their lives underground.
For the rest of this articles we will explore the most common species in these two families, which are all found at the BFEC. We’ll start with the lungless family and the northern two-lined salamander, a small species that reaches just 2-3 inches in length. Its color varies from dull greenish yellow to bright yellow, with a distinct brown or black line starting behind the eyes and running down each side of its back, ending around the midpoint of the tail. Adults are found in a variety of habitats, most often on the edge of forested streams hiding under rocks and logs. They can also be found in springs and seeps, or even yards away from water in moist mature forests. Like the other salamanders we will discuss here, their diet consists of insects (like beetles and mayflies), spiders, centipedes, earthworms and snails.
Their breeding season is usually from January to April. When the breeding season comes around, males get restless and start nudging the females, and here’s where it gets a bit unusual. The male will actually wrap its body around the female’s head and snout, perhaps for up to an hour, using special glands to release pheromones that affect female receptivity. Once the male releases, the female will straddle the male’s tail and walk behind him; this is called “the straddle walk.”
The female will then start moving her head out of phase with her tail. During this time, the male releases spermatophores, which the female then walks over to accept internally. Once fertilized, the female will typically lay 15 to 20 eggs, though sometimes up to 50, in April and May. Eggs are attached under logs or rocks in shallow water on the edge of streams. Some females will guard their eggs until they hatch, which in Ohio is about 60 days. The young hatch with gills and will stay in the larval stage for two or three years. Once mature, they lose their gills, and true to the family name, start breathing through their skin.
Another common species in the lungless family is the eastern red-backed salamander. This species is very small, only reaching 2 to 3.5 inches in length, and has two color phases. First is the red-backed phase, which features a red stripe starting behind the head, tampering down towards the tail and bordered by a dark pigment. The second color phase is known as the lead-backed phase and is found in many populations. It lacks the red stripe and may have brassy or silver specks on the sides and back.
Eastern red-backed salamanders inhabit moist mature forest, hiding during the day under leaf litter, rocks, and rotting logs. Unlike most salamanders in this family, eastern red-backed salamanders have an extended breeding season. Breeding usually starts in October, and lasts to early April, though females can only reproduce every other year. During the breeding season males track down females and initiate courtship. Males will rub glands on the body and snout of the female, releasing pheromones. Most species in this family do “the straddle walk” led by the male, but for eastern red-backed salamanders the females will lead the straddle walk. Only when the male releases his spermatophores (to be accepted by the female) will he lead.
Eastern red-backed salamanders can defy rules of being amphibians by reproducing without a body of water. After mating, females crawl into burrows under rocks or rotting logs and lay eggs in early summer. They stay and guard the eggs until they hatch 6 to 8 weeks later.
Unlike most young in this family, eastern red-backed salamanders do not go through a free-swimming larval stage. They bear gills while in the egg, but while there, change rapidly into immature adults. After they hatch, gills shrivel up and the young start breathing through their skin within 24 to 48 hours. It usually takes males two years, and females three, to reach breeding maturity.
The mole salamander family is a little different from the lungless family. Let’s start with the Jefferson salamander. Jeffersons are large and have dark purplish bodies with tiny silver specks running down both sides. They can reach 4 to 7 inches in length, and have very long toes compared to other species in this family. They inhabit mature forests that contain the vernal wetlands or streams they require for breeding.
Jeffersons live under the forest floor for most of their adult lives, sometimes several hundred yards from breeding waters. Every spring on the first decently warm, raining night of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, even if there is still snow or ice present, these creatures will emerge from the underground and migrate back to the waters in which they were born to breed. This brief foray above ground provides just about the only time to see this species. They usually breed in vernal pools (or temporary, forested wetlands) in or around the mature forested wetlands) in or around the mature forest where they live but may use streams and ponds as well.
When the adults finally make it to breeding waters, the male initiates courtship, climbing on the female’s back and wrapping his forelimbs around her. He will rub his chin on the top and sides of her head and snout, along with vibrating his body and undulating his tail.
Once the male dismounts, if the female is ready to breed she will nudge his cloacal region and he will disperse spermatophores, which the female will then walk over to accept. Females will lay their eggs one to several days later, usually on submerged sticks or vegetation. A female lays 180 to 210 eggs, and then both sexes return to the forest floor until next breeding season. The eggs usually hatch 26 to 35 days later. The young larva are born with gills and remain in the water for 2 to 4 months. Once reaching adulthood, with lungs developed, they migrate from wetlands to the forest on rainy or humid nights to begin their lives underground.
Probably the most popular salamander of our 25 species is the spotted salamander. They are easy to identify, growing 6 to 7 inches long with dark purplish bodies and two lines of yellow spots extending from head to the tail.
Just like the Jefferson salamander, you will most likely only see these creatures when they emerge from underground and migrate to their breeding waters in early spring. Spotted salamanders usually breed in shallow vernal pools free of fish, though they have also been observed breeding in roadside ditches, submerged tire tracks, and swamps.
Spotted salamanders migrate a little differently than Jeffersons. Though migration occurs during the same time of year and under the same weather conditions, spotted male salamanders migrate to the breeding waters 1 to 6 days earlier than females. Once the males reach the water they will release their spermatophores on submerged sticks and vegetation. When the females arrive, the males will nudge and push them towards their spermatophores; up to 50 individual males may push one female. After the female accepts a spermatophore she will lay her eggs on submerged sticks and plants, and then return to the forest floor until the next breeding season.
The eggs will hatch 4 to 7 weeks later; young are born with gills and will remain in the larval stage for 2 to 4 months. Once they mature, they lose their gills, develop lungs and migrate to the forest to live underground as adults, though it takes them 2 to 3 years to reach sexual maturity.
As you can tell, streams, mature forests, and vernal pools play a critical role in salamander survival; humans can have a devastating impact by disrupting these sensitive ecosystems. Agriculture can have a negative impact on salamander population if chemical runoff from farm fields flows into the streams, where it can harm or kill the salamanders that live there. Logging can also have a huge impact on mole salamanders.
Mole salamanders like the Jefferson and spotted are even more vulnerable, since the habitat that they require — vernal wetlands — are becoming less and less common as they are filled to make way for human development. While populations of spotted salamanders are stable, there are fewer of them now than there were in 1950 (according to the Ohio Biological Survey).
On a good note, humans are starting to realize the importance of these ecosystems, and not just for amphibians. Wetlands also benefit nearby communities by filtering pollutants and preventing flooding by absorbing runoff.
Organizations like the Department of Agriculture have made regulations to limit farm runoff pollution. Landowners can also take care during logging operations to avoid wetlands and leave adjacent mature woods to provide refuge.
At the Brown Family Environmental Center, we are proud to protect habitat for all of the salamanders featured here, plus countless other animals, in vernal wetlands and streams and along the Kokosing River. You can help by supporting the BFEC or other organizations near and far that conserve habitat and ensure the future for these fascinating creatures.