Thursday, March 12, 2009

Salamanders, Newts, and Unisexuals

Last Tuesday night was good for hunting salamanders - not great, but good. A crew of us dispatched to the meadows and swampy woods of Logan County, near Bellefontaine (beautiful fountain, in French), and found more than enough to occupy our interest. We had hoped hard for rain - about the only time I ever do - and it came, but not until 1 am. Rain lubricates the landscape, and creates much better conditions for salamanders making the overland journey to breeding pools. A long night, I didn't get back home until 4 am, but well worthwhile.

Some of the amphibious crew emerges from a wetland, late at night. L to R: Greg Lipps (more on him in a sec); Chip Gross, an outdoor writer who was gathering material for an upcoming story for Country Living Magazine; and videographer/narrator extraordinaire Skip Trask, who films for Wild Ohio TV.

Mr. Salamander, Greg Lipps, panning for amphibious gold: Tiger Salamanders. Greg is a phenom - one of the most knowledgeable herpetologists in the Midwest, a field dynamo, generous with his knowledge, and full of irrepressible energy. We were fortunate to have him along this night. This blog entry is all about salamanders, but Greg pulled another kind of spectacular beast out of one of the wetlands we visited, and I'm going to blog that separately, later.

Our host, and an exceptional all-around naturalist, Troy Shively. Troy grew up in Logan County and knows its every nook and cranny. He led us to some great spots for the wriggly ones.

Presto! As if by magic, these mini-dragons appear above ground for a few days each spring, seek breeding pools, mate and lay eggs, and vanish back into the earth. This is our largest salamander, the Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum. It was the A-list salamander for the eve, the one we really hoped to find. And we did, maybe a dozen or so.

Here, your wet wind-tousled and tired blogger holds a Tiger Salamander to create a size scale. Some jumbos can reach a foot in length! Tigers seem to be associated with Ohio's former prairie regions, and they prefer much more open landscapes than other species. Some individuals are boldly marked with yellow dots and smudges; most of the ones that we caught this night were rather dull.

Tiger Salamander, heading into a breeding pool. As if pulled by a magnet, they forge over, through, and around obstacles in their quest to reach the ponds and reproduce. Tigers prefer deeper water than their allies, and this pond was probably a good four feet deep in the center. We were able to spot the giants under the clear water as they hung in the water column, rested on the bottom, or darted rapidly about, fishlike.

Troy led us to a spectacular road that bisected wet woods dotted with vernal pools. Late in the night, after the rain began, we saw many salamanders crossing the roadway. This Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum, was in one of the nearby woodland pools. I'll never tire of seeing these.

We saw many Red-spotted Newts, Notophthalmus viridescens, both in the pools and crossing the road, as this one is doing. The critter above is known as a Red Eft, which is the larval, terrestrial stage of the newt. Efts might live up to three years away from water, boldly roaming the forest floor. Forgive me the anthropomorphism, but they really are "bold". It isn't uncommon to see efts wandering about during the day, especially after a shower. Not much will mess with them - efts are quite poisonous. Allegedly, there is a case of a college student dying after efts were foolishly substituted for goldfish in that age-old bit of frat boy foolishness, the goldfish-eating contest.
When the newt matures, it returns to the water and becomes strictly aquatic, and might live for several more years.

Now we come to the unisexual part. You may have been wondering about that. Well, I was talking about this beast - an odd and poorly understood "species". We saw plenty of them, and all appeared to be part of a hybrid swarm that produces all female populations of these curious animals. There are probably three parental species involved: Blue-spotted Salamander, Ambystoma laterale; Smallmouth Salamander, A. texanum; and Jefferson Salamander, A. jeffersonianum. The blue flecking, characteristic of Blue-spotted, is evident on this individual, and many showed strong traits of Smallmouths.

Greg is actively working on this mystery, and took genetic material from a number of the individuals that we encountered. Much work remains to ferret out the answers to this puzzle. Whatever they may be, they're still cool to find, and exceptionally entertaining. This one found me troubling, and paused, rearing its neck up, cobra-like. Check the following video out for a very cool unisexual display.

As you will note, "Video Magic" wants me to buy their product. Maybe I will; they did a good job of compressing this vid down enough so that Blogger would load it. The video shows a unisexual salamander crossing the road, and us agitating it so that the animal would perform its fascinating defense display. When threatened, they sometimes raise their tail and wave it hypnotically, as a lure to the predator. The idea is that the coon or whatever will key in on the tail, and grab that rather than the body and all of the vital organs. When it does, the tail or parts thereof snap off, and Mr. Coon gets a slimy eel-like mouthful of some of the most godawful viscous gunky-tasting junk imaginable. He'll not want to visit that party again, and our salamander escapes, sans tail, which it may partially regenerate.
Lots of strange stuff in the realm of salamanders.


Jason Folt said...

More great stuff!

Carrying on from the thread below, I can't wait to see some tiger larvae! I have only ever seen adults moving at night infrequently, and have never made the trips back during the day. I would love to see some nice biguns' dip netted out of some pools.

Regarding the lineage of the polyploids, don't forget the all important A. barbouri. Some of the most recent evidence using mDNA suggests barbouri is the orinigal lineage. At the Herp Conference in Columbus last year, Bogart even mentioned that they have found barbouri nuclear dna in individuals well out of barbouri range.

Keep the herps coming ;)


Jared Mizanin said...

Another nice post. I hope to take a shot at Tigers this upcoming Sunday in northern Ohio where I found four last year. They were pretty dull, really, and not that large, but inch-for-inch were bulkier than maculatum.

Can't wait to see what the other creature you guys pulled from the water. Some kind of dragonfly nymph or predatory beetle?