Spring showers bring salamanders

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) caught while trying to cross the road to get to their breeding pond.

Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) caught while trying to cross the road to get to their breeding pond.

One of the first spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) of this year.

One of the first spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) of this year.

About two weeks ago some members of our lab group went out around Blacksburg to look for some of the early spring breeders such as spotted and jefferson salamanders. There is nothing quite so exciting as the prospect of finding these difficult to see amphibians It was a warm wet night, perfect for amphibians crossing the road, so we cruised around in our car a little. However, when we stopped for what we thought was a salamander, we were saddened to see that it was a road-killed spotted salamander. As we walked along the wet pavement, it became clear that the road was a barrier of death to many amphibians. There were numbers of crushed spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) and spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum). One unfortunate salamander that we came across had been hit and its back side was pulverized, but it was still moving so one of the graduate students put it out of its misery. We began to despair that we would see any spotted salamanders alive. No sooner had we given up than we intercepted a live one heading across the road. You might be wondering why, with all of the cars running down the road, so many amphibians still cross the tarmac. At this time of year, all of the frogs and salamanders we saw were most likely heading to their breeding grounds on the other side of the road. The road almost certainly takes a heavy toll on the annual migrants and it is uncertain whether we will continue to see many spotted salamanders in Blacksburg as the area continues to be developed.

Jefferson salamanders (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) can be distinguished from other salamanders by their long hind toes and blue-spotted sides.

Jefferson salamanders (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) can be distinguished from other salamanders by their long hind toes and blue-spotted sides.

After our hunt on the roads, we drove up to a pond where we knew there were Jefferson salamanders (Ambystoma jeffersonianum). This is a species that I had not yet seen. On the drive to the pond we saw an american toad (Anaxyrus americanus) on the road and several striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) with broken up white stripes. There were also white-tailed deer, Virginia opossums and rabbits out that night. After all the luck we had had with wildlife watching that night, I could not believe that we would be able to see Jefferson salamanders as well. Lady Luck was still on our side, however, for at the pond we saw at least two adult Jefferson salamanders in the water and several egg masses. My greatest fear for these early amphibians are the weather fluctuations (e. g. March and April snowstorms). Every year I think that all of the young salamanders and wood frogs must surely be dead after the frosts, but next year they are still around. The capacity of life to survive never ceases to amaze me. I hope that in years to come, we will still be able to observe this annual cycle of amphibian reproduction.

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