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.
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.
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.