Friday, March 9, 2012

Tiger salamanders, Take II

An eastern tiger salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum, our largest and burliest salamander (in Ohio). This photo was taken alongside a breeding pool in Logan County, Ohio, last night.

If you wish to seek mole salamanders - the Ambystomids - it is necessary to remain flexible. One must await the magical ingredients of fairly warm weather, coupled with rain, in early spring. And then head out at night, when these strange subterranean creatures emerge from the ground and march overland to favored breeding pools. This means one cannot plan these forays well in advance - you have to go on the salamanders' schedule and they don't give much notice.

I though last night might be a good night for seeking tiger salamanders. Constant rains drenched the central Ohio landscape throughout the day yesterday, and the temperature rose to a salamander-friendly 55 degrees. I shot home after work, took care of some things, and was headed towards tiger country west of Columbus around 6:30 pm. The rain had ceased by then, and to my dismay the temperature plummeted to 42 degrees before I was 15 minutes into my travels. No good for mass migrations, but I figured I would check a breeding pool or two and see if any tiger salamanders had yet made their way to the breeding grounds.

Yes! As expected given the weather, I saw no salamanders crossing the roads, which had mostly dried out by the time I reached Logan County, but I was rewarded with the sight of several dozen salamanders swimming in a pool. The guy above was photographed through the water - he is about two feet under the surface. Tiger salamanders are outstanding swimmers, and it was a treat to watch several dozen of the giant amphibians gracefully floating about, or rocketing around like torpedoes. These animals have large paddlelike feet and a laterally compressed tail similar to a muskrat's, and they use these adaptations to swim with the greatest of ease.

Tiger salamanders might suggest spotted salamanders, Ambystoma maculatum, at first glance, but they differ in several ways. One, the tigers are comparatively much more massive - a bit like comparing a Great Black-backed Gull to a Ring-billed Gull. The head is big and broad, and enormous in comparison to the rest of the animal's body. The spotting on a tiger is more messy - unlike the clean rows of bright yellow dots on a spotted salamander - and tiger spots are a dull mustard-yellow. I saw several individuals last night that were nearly unmarked and mostly blackish.

I apologize for the less than stellar quality of my images. There was no time to round up anyone else to go along, and trying to carefully handle the animals - always keep your hands wet! - and juggle the camera and a flashlight at the same time gets to be a bit much. Shooting at night requires careful manipulation of the camera's flashes, something that I couldn't adequately deal with last night. Thus, it was necessary to really jack up the brightness and contrast post-processing.

One of the burly bruisers poses on the pond's margin. I find the life cycle of these amphibians to be exceedingly interesting, and shrouded in mystery. Tiger salamanders emerge from the ground for only a few days, and their goal is to trek to breeding pools to court, lay eggs, and reproduce themselves. After this important task is complete, the tigers leave the pools, and once again disappear from our world. They spend nearly all their days under the ground, probably moving through mole tunnels, crayfish burrows, or other subterranean nooks and crannies. Very little is known of them and their other mole salamander kin; studying such beasts in the wild, other than at the breeding pools, is nearly impossible.

The animal in the photo above was a big one, maybe eight or nine inches in length. Tiger salamanders can get bigger than that; supposedly indivduals up to 14 inches have been found. They are the amphibious counterparts to box turtles in the longevity department, too, and can probably live for a few decades if all goes well.

Here's the distribution of the eastern tiger salamander, map courtesy the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Ohio represents the eastern edge of the interior populations, and much of this distribution mirrors the formerly great midwestern prairie ecosystem. It does seem that Ohio's best populations of tiger salamanders occur in former prairie areas, and many breeding sites such as I visited last night are in very open habitats, not the forested vernal pools that one often associates with Ambystomid salamanders. Tiger salamanders also range down the Mississippi Valley and then along sandy Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains. This U-shaped distribution pattern is shared by a number of other aquatic animals, and a great many species of wetland plants.

I don't think the major run of tiger salamanders has yet occurred. I saw no spermatophores - male sperm packets - in the pond, nor any eggs. Right now, the forecast for Monday calls for rain, and temperatures in the upper 50's. If that prediction pans out, I'll be back in west-central Ohio hunting tigers.


Jack and Brenda said...

Thanks much for this post. I haven't done any salamander hunting, but may do so next week. (in Western Ohio) We have some swampy areas of the old Miami Erie Canal near our house that might make good breeding areas.

Scott said...

Wow another cool salamander. Thanks for sharing, we should get together sometime and I can show you some tricks I have developed for night time insect photography. They would probably help you with these night time forays. Drop me a private mail if you are interested.

A.L. Gibson said...

Color me jealous, Jim! I've wanted to see one of these guys for years! Only time I've ever seen one was our old houses' garden in rural Clark county one spring. Great photos and information as always!

Sharkbytes (TM) said...

I've seen a few of these. They are awesome critters!

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks all for your comments! I'll have to take you up on that sometime, Scott - always looking to improve my photography skills!