Thursday, February 10, 2005

Salamanders in Spring

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Spring may seem a long way off if you buy the groundhog’s prediction about six more weeks of winter, or focus on the meteorologist’s warnings about the big snow that we’re bound to get sooner or later. But spring comes in by degrees, not all at once, and the cardinals and Carolina wrens in our area began to sing about it more than a week ago already.

Indeed, the very next heavy rains will likely trigger one of the coolest and most ancient natural phenomenon that still takes place in east central Illinois, the annual congregation of amphibians in the waters where they breed.

The participants in this aquatic love fest, which starts out in water cold enough to send people into shock, include frogs and toads, but to me the most interesting are the salamanders, especially the eight species known collectively as mole salamanders. In Champaign county this group is represented by two kinds: the smallmouth salamander, a black, or very dark brown creature with gray markings on its sides that give it a marbled appearance, and the eastern tiger salamander, which may grow to be a foot long, and which sports yellow spots that stretch out to cover more and more of its body as it ages.

You may or may not have been aware of it, but the eastern tiger salamander was elected by schoolchildren to be the official state amphibian of Illinois in a 2004 contest sponsored by Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn.

As their group name suggests, mole salamanders spend most of the year beneath rotting logs or underground. There they move about in natural gaps, and the tunnels and burrows created by small mammals, feeding on a variety of invertebrates including earthworms, slugs, and insects.

Beginning sometime in February, however, as the earth thaws and the ice recedes, rainy nights bring mole salamanders above ground, and they trundle overland seeking out the vernal pools where they were born. These are wetlands that hold water far enough into the summer for amphibian larvae to mature, but which dry up at some point in most years so that fish cannot survive in them.

If you were to shine a light into such a pool on a spring night--somewhere in a wooded area with a stream nearby--you’d be amazed at how many salamanders you can see, and surprised at how gracefully they swim.

During the day, you may see salamander eggs, held together in a mass with a jelly-like substance, and attached to twigs or other underwater structure. The larvae will hatch in four to seven weeks, and live in the pool until autumn, when they metamorphose and move onto land.

But maybe this is looking too far ahead. After all, those first spring rains haven’t arrived just yet.