Thu. Feb 29th, 2024
Spotted Salamander.

Salamanders are iconic and influential members of northern forest communities. As one of the most abundant vertebrates in the forests of eastern North America, salamanders are considered “keystone species” due to their disproportionate role as predators and prey in regulating food webs, nutrient cycling, and contributing to the resilience-resistance of ecosystems.

In addition to serving key ecological functions, amphibians are our modern-day “canaries in the coal mine,” serving as a measure of environmental health.

Studying salamanders

The Bat Lake Inventory of Spotted Salamanders (BLISS) research project in Algonquin Provincial Park celebrates 13 years in 2021!

Salamander crossing traffic sign.Drive slowly within the park boundaries and keep an eye out for salamanders, especially during migration season!

This study collects baseline data on salamander populations to better understand what a healthy population looks like and the role of these animals in the broader environment.

Patrick Moldowan (PhD student) and his supervisor Njal Rollinson at the University of Toronto coordinate the BLISS* project. Glenn Tattersall, a professor at Brock University, officially started BLISS in 2008 and has been instrumental in supporting students throughout the salamander study.

This story from the point of view of a male spotted salamander takes place during spring migration and breeding. It was written by Patrick Moldowan and inspired by long-time BLISS supporter David LeGros (who is not a love salamander).

The history

When people think about great migrations, what often comes to mind? The wildebeest journey through the Serengeti or the oceanic transit of neotropical birds, perhaps?

Salamanders, so simple, easily go unnoticed.

The journey begins

Now imagine: you are 10 cm long, have short, robust limbs and crawl on your belly. Your skin is wet, sticky and porous. For the past six months, you have considered the root hollow of a rotting tree or perhaps the burrow of an abandoned rodent to be a comfortable shelter for the winter.

Spotted salamander.Spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) migration at Bat Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park

Safe under the frost line and in total darkness, what you have in mind is not food, but rather a partner. Somewhere in the newly thawed forest is an alluring pond. You have to walk almost a kilometer through the thickets of thorny fir trees, the next generation depends on it.

Finally, the subzero days no longer exist, but the freezing nights still persist. Time is everything. Too soon and you risk freezing. Too late and you’ve missed your chance.

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With the first rain, you will move.

Over mountainous areas of snow, among luxurious moss-covered beds and under the fallen trunk of a once-towering pine tree, felled during the last winter storm of the season.

You’re not the only one on the move.

Red-backed salamander.Red-backed salamander.

Your smaller brothers, the red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus), is also found on the soil surface. There will probably be a big turnout this spring. The fall rains provided great feeding opportunities and he will have plenty of fat reserves left after winter.

How long will the trip take? Four nights, maybe five. You’re lucky to be one of the few beasts that braves the cold.

You shouldn’t be too complacent though; Predators hide. That poison sequestered in your skin can only take you so far. Any predator reckless enough to take a bite will receive a large dose of the concoction, but some have still managed to get around it.

Forward

As you approach the pond, the chorus is deafening. Ah, the spring peepers (Pseudacris cruciferous) and wood frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) made good time, with their long legs and all. The frogs’ singing across the landscape seems all the more striking given the harsh winter that immediately preceded their resuscitation. They are too enthusiastic. . .

Bat Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park during spring thaw.Bat Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park during spring thaw

It’s getting late and the moon is high. The first dive into Bat Lake always feels like a shock to the system.

It could simply be the cold or perhaps the promise of another year ahead. It feels like home. While the days of the gills are gone, while you remember the summer you spent hidden among the mud, the fallen leaves of Leatherleaf and Labrador Tea and the thick moss of the coast.

Late-stage spotted salamander embryo.late stage embryo

You still had to earn your place in the wide world that lay beyond the water’s edge. Slippery-shelled swimmers (predatory diving beetles), trap-jawed monsters (dragonfly larvae), and fast talkers (giant aquatic insects) were always something to watch out for. These dangers have not completely passed.

There is little time to waste. It may only be one night before companions arrive, depending on the weather. And so you settle.

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A submerged moss-covered mound gently sloping down from the shoreline – this is it. A broken Leatherleaf stem is just the centerpiece of the occasion.

You dread this part. He has never prided himself on being a landscaper, but he still went to work. There’s no use wasting time now. Ah, this piece of moss will do and that submerged log. Piece by piece, your perfectly manicured sperm garden comes together, not a spermatophore out of place.

Spotted salamander sperm garden at Bat Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park.Spotted salamander sperm garden at Bat Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park

You end up without a moment to waste. From the shallow water you see a pair of glowing eyes staring at you.

As you glide gracefully through the water, a female appears and begins to investigate your efforts. She is taking her time, a good sign.

She spins. Is she playing coy? Alright buddy, time to impress. Some petting, a flick of the tail, and a straddle movement occur in an effort to further interest the female. It’s been a long winter. Are you sure you still have it?

Round and round the garden, she keeps you guessing. It becomes a game of follow the leader as you take the lead and guide her to the center of the garden as she gingerly walks over some spermatophores before freezing in place. She crouches down. Very slowly, she lines herself up and gently taps the base of her tail against the gelatinous capsule.

Spotted salamander.spotted salamander

Without hesitation, the spermatophore disappears into your reproductive tract. The female takes a few steps forward and picks up another. Sigh of relief, you still have it. The female turns around and pushes you back. As she turns her tail and heads toward the bed of thick leaf litter, you follow her. Tonight has been a long overland journey for her; She will lay her eggs tomorrow.

In a flash of dots, both disappear in sync.

The early spring awakening bore fruit.

Spotted salamander egg mass.Spotted salamander egg mass

*The BLISS project would like to thank our many student volunteers, the non-profit Algonquin Wildlife Research Station (follow us for frequent updates on their wildlife research on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages) and the support of Ontario Parks. Donations for salamander studies, among many other Algonquin wildlife research and conservation projects, can be made by contacting the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station or visiting their Patreon.