Sunday, March 4, 2012
Fortunately, two speaking obligations over the past few days took me to Adams County in southern Ohio, and at prime time for the eruption of salamanders. Not one to shun fieldwork, I managed to wet my feet and visit some of our most interesting and poorly known creatures as they made their vernal peregrinations to their breeding pools.
When the first warm rains of late winter/early spring arrive, it is as if giant magnetic fields tug the salamanders from the earth. They arise en masse, like an army of amphibious zombies, and march towards ancestral breeding pools. Nothing deters them, including roads. If one is interested in witnessing this spectacle, it is necessary to be be on alert and ready to act on short notice. The salamanders will not be above ground for long, and interested observers must work on their terms.
That night had a strange beat to it. A vicious string of tornados - some of the strongest on record - had laid waste to southwestern Ohio and nearby Indiana and Kentucky earlier in the day, claiming numerous lives and causing lots of property damage. I rode it out in my hotel at Murphin Ridge, and thought the roof might come off the place at one point. The storm took out all the power in the area, and I was sad to learn that The Nature Conservancy's venerable old barn along Ohio Brush Creek was utterly flattened by the high winds. Trees were down everywhere, and the eerie pulse of the tornado's aftermath could still be sensed that evening. By the time we ventured out, the rains had ceased, but the ground was thoroughly saturated as it must be for the salamanders to launch on their march. Strong winds scudded broken tiers of clouds across a starry backdrop, the intermittent bursts of dim moonlight briefly lighting the migrating amphibians.
The now aquatic creatures were in a frenzy of courting, depositing spermatophores, and laying eggs. The water was a bit murky, and we couldn't see clearly to the bottom, but it must have been an amphibious riot down there in the depths. Salamanders were shooting to the surface like corks, grabbing a quick gasp of air, and plunging back down to continue their manic activity.
Note the little pieces of what looks to be bits of white styrofoam. Those are spotted salamander spermatophores. The males deposit these little sperm-filled packets on the bottom of the vernal pool, and later a female will pick them up via her cloaca and thus fertilize her eggs.
Predators galore go after amphibian eggs in vernal pools, and we saw ample evidence of this. I have some cool photos of some of these egg-eaters in action, and will share some of those later.