There are eleven different species of salamanders in Massachusetts that come in as many different colors and patterns. The most commonly seen salamander around here by hikers on a trail walk is the small Eastern newt with black dots all across its body, as seen in my illustration. It has an unusual three-part life cycle that begins as a fully aquatic vertebrate with visible gills (aquatic larvae), and then morphs into the terrestrial bright “eft” (juvenile) stage. Then it returns to water as a yellow and green adult.
The “spotted salamander,” also illustrated, is brightly-colored and quite common with a dark blue body and large yellow spots. It spends most of the year hibernating in small underground burrows until emerging in spring to travel to vernal pools to breed.
Most species are poisonous to eat and can exude bad-tasting toxic substances when threatened by a predator. Salamanders do not have ears and communicate only by sensitive touch of skin. They advertise the deadly chemical nature of their body by flashing their bright unnatural color as a warning. If they should be caught by the tail, they also have the ability to quickly shed it and later grow a new one.
Vernal pools are essential to provide a safe breeding haven for salamanders, since vernal pools are temporarily formed by gathering spring rain or melting ice and snow in woodland hollows and meadows. Since they eventually dry up, they are inaccessible and inhospitable to predatory fish. After producing jelly-like egg masses on the moist forest floor attached to vegetation, parents keep close watch guarding them until they hatch.
Several salamander species are endangered through human interference such as global warming and encroachment of habitat by commercial and residential development The main threat, however, is building well-traveled roads across migration routes to vernal pools.
Courtship begins when the male brightens up his colors to attract a female, and then rubbing noses with her to ensure compatibility. This big gathering in large numbers is classified as a “congress” by naturalists and is activated by several consecutive days above 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Like the unfolding fiddle-top ferns around their wetlands, the salamander has been a symbolic aquatic oasis linking this unbroken chain of evolution for millions of years.
After a heavy rain on a balmy night you may open your bedtime window to hear the orchestration of the tiny wood frog that carries for up to a quarter mile. The tempo of the chorus reverberates with the tempo of an Earthly heartbeat from the solar pulse and the new life brought forth by the season of spring.
By George B. Emmons