Spring showers bring masses of yellow-spotted salamanders out to mate

Salamander rains: spring showers bring masses of yellow-spotted salamanders out to mate

Sy Montgomery

Up in Warner, New Hampshire, David Carroll is waiting. “It’s like the night before Christmas,” says the swamp-loving author and illustrator. He keeps his radio tuned to the weather and keeps his hip waders by the door.

Down in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, wetlands consultant Brian Butler is waiting. It’s always a crapshoot,” he says. “You just can’t say in advance what night it will be.”

And over in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Audubon herpetologist Tom Tyning is waiting. “They might be coming this week,” he predicts.

They are waiting for one of the strangest and most thrilling of North America’s wildlife spectacles: the emergence and mass migration of scores, hundreds, sometimes even thousands of glistening, yellow-spotted, jet black salamanders almost as long as your foot.

The salamanders are waiting, too. They wait, poised, snouts out, at the entrances to tunnels of short-tailed shrews.

They spend almost every day of the year hidden six inches beneath the soil — which, of course, course, is why so few people even suspect that the exotic-looking spotted salamander lives among us, occupying a third of the continent from Nova Scotia to east Texas. The salamanders stay put until evening temperatures rise above the low 40s for two nights in a row and it also rains from afternoon into night. This happens as early as January or February in the Great Smokies and the South, and during March or April in the North. Carroll calls these soaking storms “the Salamander rains” — for they are the signal for these amphibians to leave their tunnels and make the yearly pilgrimage to the shallow, fishless, temporary pools where they spawn.

“You see the magic on one night,” says Brian Windmiller, a wetlands consultant based in Concord, Massachusetts. “One night nothing is going on — and the next night there could be hundreds of animals on the move.”

It’s a perilous journey. So many salamanders are squashed by cars as they cross crowded streets to reach breeding pools that in Amherst, Massachusetts, folks installed special tunnels to funnel the creatures beneath dangerous roads; in Lenox and Framingham, roads are closed and cars rerouted during migration.

If you drive 20 miles an hour and keep an eye out, though, you’ll have a chance to see the brightly spotted critters streaming across the road (and to avoid running them over). Indeed, to make sure you don’t miss the migration, area specialists suggest “herp cruising”: On rainy nights, drive slowly down streets that wind through woodlands and wetlands. Or walk around with your flashlight. Listen for the ducklike “ruck-ruck-ruck” calls of the wood frogs and the bell-like jingle of the first spring peppers. They will lead you to the vernal pools where the salamanders spawn.

Here, in water usually only inches deep and often still fringed with ice, you may find what is known (even before Newt Gingrich’s rise to power) as a salamander congress: “A mesmerizing interweaving of black salamanders with yellow spots, supple and graceful, moving in the water,” as Carroll describes it, “like one of Escher’s prints come to life.”

Hundreds of giant, gyrating amphibians are not the sort of thing that leaps to mind when you think of places like New England or Missouri or Nova Scotia. “They look like something from the tropics,” says Butler. You’re most likely to see spotters during the salamander rains, but you may also find rarer species, such as blue spotters and brownish gray Jefferson’s salamanders, as well.

Though seldom seen, salamanders may be among the commonest critters around: a 1975 study at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire estimated that all the salamanders there would together outweigh all the other backboned animals in the forest, including all the moose.

How do we know? A few decades back, researchers had tried tagging salamanders with radioactive needles and tracking them with Geiger counters. But since radioactive amphibians evoke a certain dread among the general public, Brian Windmiller came up with another idea. He sews little vests for his spotted salamanders, outfitting 26 of them with a lima bean-sized radio transmitter that permits him to track them through telemetry.

Fittings are admittedly difficult. Besides being slimy, “these guys have no waists,” he complains. (His couture for the frogs was much easier.) Happily for the salamanders, the vests come off easier than, they go on: the animals shed their skins every few weeks, and with them their outfits.

The radio vests have helped Windmiller achieve a startling estimate of the population of his study area: during the salamander rains, some 10,000 amphibians (including salamanders and frogs) pile out of the woods and surge into a single one-acre vernal pool in Concord. That’s nearly 300 pounds of amphibians,” he says. It’s a finding that proves these ephemeral, embattled wetlands and the land that surrounds them are “the richest, most productive place in the woods.”

That this fact comes as such a shock is testament to the salamanders’ modesty. For centuries, these shy animals were so little known, their mysteries could only be explained by magic. Along with gnomes and nymphs, salamanders were considered one of the “elemental spirits” representing earth, water, and fire, according to the system of the 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus. Salamanders were long thought to be born of fire. The idea probably arose because salamanders often live under logs and were sometimes unwittingly transported to home hearths. When the fireplace was lit, distressed salamanders rushed out of the blaze — giving the appearance of arising from the flame.

Yet the spotted salamanders’ true story is more remarkable still. Not born of fire but spawned on ice, they are the offspring of females who manage to emerge from mating as virgin mothers.

Male spotted salamanders deposit their sperm before they even meet the females. After littering the bottom of the vernal pool with sperm-bearing capsules, they then wriggle and gyrate, nuzzling and petting with abandon every female they contact. Each male’s efforts seem to be focused on inducing as many females as possible to pick up his sperm capsules with short appendages beneath their tails. The females lay their eggs in gelatinous masses shortly thereafter.

“It is a very curious way of going g about mating,” says Carroll, “but whatever happens, it’s obviously very exciting for them, and they wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Neither would he. Attending the salamander emergence has become “like a sacred rite,” Carroll says. “It’s the real way to celebrate spring. The preconceived notion is that spring is when the robins come to eat the worms, but by then spring’s almost over. When these amphibians start to move, the season is on the wing. I can’t bear to miss it.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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