Sunday, January 11, 2009

Salamanders in Snow

A few days ago, Glen went to McClane Creek DNR with Erica Guttman of the Native Plant Salvage Project. Erica was helping him brush up on his winter twig identification skills in preparation for teaching a class .

The road at McClane was closed; this park sits in a cold pocket under the edge of the Black Hills, and is always the last place the snow melts. As they walked down the snow-packed road, Glen was quite surprised to see a Rough-skinned Newt on the compacted snow, in the middle of the road. It lay unmoving on the icy surface as they saw it; he wondered that it might be hypothermic. As he went to check it out, it got quite lively, though he was still able to pick it up.

Those of us who love McClane know all about these newts in May. As the ponds warm, and the sun rises more and more over the Black Hills, you can stand on the docks and stare down into the peaty water, watching a great deal of salamander sex.

April and May are the beginning months of their summer lives: they lead two different lives. In their spring/ summer life, their bodies take on a sleek. smooth outline suitable for living in water. During these months, they spend most of their time in the water. They have lungs specially adapted for this part of their life; they seem to hold their breath for a long time, but as you watch, you will see them come to the surface for a breath, leaving telltale tiny bubbles on the surface.

Summer is the breeding time: it’s common at McClane to see large swirling balls of salamanders in the water: all males clustered on one female. Once fertilized, the primary goal of females is to lay their single eggs on floating blades of vegetation.

By late fall, the falling temperatures urge the newts out of the ponds; they move into the woods, finding places under logs, under the leaf litter, stones and stumps to live out their winter lives. The thin, sensitive skin suitable to a water life morphs into a thick, warty hide, especially on the top. This tough skin is much more appropriate for living life on the forest floor. In the photo we see a Rough-skinned Newt in "winter plumage".

They continue to be active, even in winter, exploring the forest leaf litter for food. They are carnivores; I remember learning that salamanders eat “anything they can get their mouths around”. They specialize in small slow-moving prey, which they find by smell. While they are generally considered nocturnal, some will also hunt during the day.

Seeing this winter salamander reminded us of the years when we lived at Trosper lake wetland. We noticed that when the warm wet Chinook winds blew in February, it seemed to trigger mass migrations of frogs and salamanders to the breeding ponds. It could be the recent warm wet weather got this salamander moving. If true, it didn’t bargain for the snow pack. It may have been following its nose as it hunted, then strayed onto the snow and perhaps got too cold.

It was this salamander's lucky day. Glen picked it up and put it back in the forest.


"Amphibians of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia: by Corkran and Thoms
"Amphibians of the Pacific Northwest" by William Leonard
Photo: From Miguel Vieira at CreativeCommons

1 comment:

  1. Glen and Janet:

    Great blog. Thanks to Emmett for pointing it out.

    I am still way too immersed in the gloom of Winter to be looking for signs of Spring. It's good to see that signs of brighter skies are here.

    Mark D.