I have been around long enough to realize that when the sun gets higher, the sap houses start steaming, the days begin creeping noticeably longer and everyone in the Northeast begins to think of spring. I have also noticed, over the decades, the fact that we usually get our largest snowfall amounts in February and March.
I cogitated on this cosmic subterfuge as I moved already huge snowbanks to make room for the 9 inches of snow currently falling on my head and blowing down the collar of my jacket. The colder and wetter I get, the more I begin to admire animals that hibernate. Sleeping in a warm dark room, under a cozy comforter and perhaps coming out to look for my shadow when the snow and previously frozen ground have combined into warm, oozy mud has genuine appeal.
I am not selfish in this late winter antipathy. One of the snow removal tasks I perform is to move a small trail from the hole under the shed out to the plowed area by the woodshed. This bit of extra work happens because I have always felt bad to see the little hand-like prints of a possum hiking through the snow. Our resident marsupial comes out of the burrow, walks down its shoveled path, roots around the pigeon coops catching mice and ends the nightly sojourn by cleaning out the cat dishes on the porch. If I were a possum, I would look enviously at the lifestyle of a hibernator as I hiked barefoot through the snow.
While the possum and I (or at least I — probably only humans complain) lament the existence of February and March, a friend of mine, Al Breisch, is out hiking about in the snow looking for even more fragile-appearing creatures that are hiking about as well.
Al is a herpetologist and an author. If you have not checked out his book, The Snake and The Salamander, you are really missing something. However, one of the things I find most fascinating about Al is his ability to go out in any month of the year and find amphibians, actively moving about in the nastiest weather. While Al seeks out sun-warmed hibernating spots and small seeps with running water that keep them unfrozen, three different people have contacted me in the past couple of weeks with an amphibian sighting of somewhat different venue.
The questions were remarkably similar, along the order of, “There is a big blue salamander with bright yellow spots running around in my cellar.” While it is interesting that some of these amphibians are handling the cold by finding somewhere warm enough to support metabolism instead of going dormant, the animal in question is not particularly rare. It is, however, somewhat rare to see them unless you are a dedicated seeker like Al.
The big blue/black salamander with yellow spots is called, unsurprisingly, a spotted salamander. It is native to North America, found from northern Canada to Texas primarily on the eastern half of the country. They are 6 to 9 inches in length and the closer to the head, the more orange cast the spots have.
One reason so many people are unfamiliar with these widespread and quite common amphibians is they are primarily nocturnal and spend the majority of the time under the leaves and forest duff. They are a species of mole salamanders so named because of their habit of rummaging around under the forest floor searching for the centipedes, millipedes, crickets, worms, spiders, slugs and snails that make up their primary diet. They are entirely carnivorous and have a sticky tongue that assists in captures.
They are also the prey of snakes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, turtles and even chipmunks and squirrels. Their defense from attack is poison glands on the back of the neck, which emit a white, mildly toxic but very bad tasting secretion. Some of their predators learn to avoid the head and, in the presence of an educated enemy, the salamanders have another trick. Their tail is detachable. When it comes off, the tail twitches furiously for several minutes leading the predator to believe it has the entire prize while the now much shorter salamander creeps away to safety. It takes the salamander a couple of weeks to grow a new tail.
This ability to regrow big hunks of their body has made the spotted salamander interesting to medical research as well. They can regrow not only a tail but legs, large hunks of the body, pieces of head and even portions of the brain if damaged.
Because they are amphibians, the spotted salamanders cannot spend their entire life in the woods (and cellars). In the early spring they descend on small vernal ponds by the hundreds and sometimes thousands. They mate in the water, usually on a rainy night which keeps them from drying out as they make their short migration to the breeding ponds. I say short because they most often return to the pond where they were born and seldom get more than 250 yards from it for their entire life.
After breeding, female spotted salamanders lay clumps of eggs, numbering about 100, that cling to underwater plants in large masses. Interestingly, these egg masses can look much different. This unique polymorphism involves the proteins found in the eggs themselves. One type of egg mass is clear and contains a water soluble protein structure. The other morph contains a crystalline water-repelling protein.
This has two functions. To begin with, there are many other amphibians crowding into the breeding ponds at about the same time. If there are large numbers of wood frog tadpoles, the clear masses make out better, for the white ones attract the most attention. Absent a predatory threat, in some ponds with low nutrients, the water- soluble proteins may be drawn away from the eggs, starving the larvae before hatching.
The baby salamanders have a second interesting survival trick. Their jelly coating keeps them from drying out but it also prevents oxygen from the water from entering the egg. The tiny larvae, however, have a green algae that develops and grows within their body as well as in the jelly layer itself. This algae produces oxygen and feeds on the carbon dioxide the developing larvae produces. In spite of all these neat tricks, over 90 percent of the larvae never make it to become juvenile salamanders that leave the water.
Those that do can live extremely long lives, as much as 32 years — nice warm years in which most of them at least sleep through all this nasty winter business.