Friday, April 25, 2014

Salamander Buzz

A field trip with Rick Roth 
As a kid I collected things with my critter buddies, snakes, dragonflies, whatever we could find that hopped, crawled or flew. We waded into vernal ponds with our peanut butter jars before anybody knew they had a name. About twenty-five years ago I began going out again and wound up starting the Cape Ann Vernal Pond Team. Massachusetts was the first state in the country to give them protection. Now, when we take people out there, the spectacle is so interesting that they ask, "How can I help?"
Rick Roth with helper
There's going to be good frog action tonight, I can guarantee it. We're not going to disappoint all these families that brought their kids out on a rainy night. Hear that croak, the quacking sound? Wood frog. Yeah, there it is. It's one of the indicator species of a vernal pond, meaning it's dependent for breeding on ponds that dry up in the summer. It's a race against time for the tadpoles to develop legs and lungs so they can hop out as miniature frogs before the ponds go dry.
Wood frog
"Hey, Rick. Over here! We found one! A salamander. Dad! Mom! Look at this. It's moving."
Okay, cool. Check this out, everybody. Thanks for the heads-up, you guys.
Yellow-spotted salamander
Our friends here only come out on rainy nights in early spring. They're in the mole salamander group, because they spend most of their lives underground where it's damp. See that crevice? I've seen them lined up in there waiting for it to rain. They won't cross twenty feet of ground to the pond unless it rains.
There's one now. It probably just came out. Salamanders can congregate in cold weather in these deep crevices and under stumps, where the frost can't reach them. It's called a hibernaculum. Wood frogs don't usually go down that deep in the winter. They're one of the only known land vertebrates that can actually freeze solid and survive ice crystals in their cells.
Salamander leaving hibernaculum
There goes the salamander, headed for the pond. Wetlands are the hotspot for forest activity. I always look for water if I'm looking for critters.
Swimming salamanders
The males show up first and deposit their part of the bargain on twigs and leaf litter in the water, in those little popcorn-like clusters you see called spermatophores. The salamanders can stay submerged indefinitely because they can take in enough oxygen from the water through their skin evidently by osmosis.
Salamander eggs
When the females arrive they find the spermatophores to fertilize their eggs, which they attach underwater to twigs. That's the little dots you see in the middle of the jelly. The larvae have gills on the side of their heads. Unlike tadpoles they're born with legs. They grow to about half an  inch before they hatch from the egg cluster. They're about 2" long by the time they're ready to crawl out of the pond into the woods.
Rain drops and cliff drops
"Hey Rick, up here. Should we pick this guy up before it falls over the cliff?" No, it'll be okay. I've seen salamanders  go right over the edge of the quarry and swim away. It doesn't seem to bother them. They know what they're doing.

I don't think my interests are eccentric at all. This is ultimately about the health of the planet, saving open space so that the trees can make more oxygen. The forest is not just trees, it's a symbiotic relationship with all these animals. To me, it just makes perfect sense that not only are these wonderful things that we have called Nature, that includes all these delightful plants and animals, but it's also necessary. 
Our certification program aims to register and protect all the vernal pond habitats on Cape Ann. We welcome newcomers to this fun and important activity. Take a look at our website,

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