Chuck Rosenburg holds a yellow-spotted salamander
One evening early this spring, I joined Chuck Rosenburg of the Department of Environmental Conservation to look for salamanders in the Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve in Cheektowaga.
I go many years without seeing a single salamander, but these gentle and environmentally friendly amphibians are quite common in undisturbed woodlands. They are extraordinarily retiring little animals, salamanders remaining within an area of a few yards in a forest, almost all of their time spent out of sight under stones or logs or a few inches down in the duff created by molding leaf litter.
There they stay for most of the year, hibernating through the winter, and in summer and fall feeding on the earthworms, snails, insects and spiders they find in the soil. Yellow-spotted salamanders rarely even surface to bask in sunlight like their cousins, the red efts I occasionally see sunning themselves on top of rotting logs.
But early each spring when changing temperatures and light conditions affect their hormones, these animals' instincts drive them to sudden activity. In this they are a bit like us. Tired of short days and finally recovering from cabin fever, we too rush outside to take advantage of the warmer temperatures.
The salamander operates on a smaller scale, however. Its migration is only a few hundred yards and takes it to a nearby slow-moving stream, pond or vernal pool.
It is while they are on those spring marches that these otherwise reclusive animals are occasionally to be seen in large numbers. Usually, however, they migrate on rainy nights when all but the most intrepid observers prefer to stay indoors. That those numbers are indeed large was brought home to me several years ago when I was hiking the Conservation Trail near Dansville. The trail took me out onto a highway that separated a steep hill on one side from a pond on the other. For a quarter mile I found the road strewn with the crushed bodies of salamanders of a half dozen species. Judging from the 200-300 animals that did not make it, I am sure that well over a thousand salamanders crossed there successfully.
That experience led me to a better realization of how many of these creatures there are living out their quiet lives in our woodlands. Basing my estimate on only that one experience, I suspect that there are several of these solitary salamanders in every acre of forest.
For those yellow-spotted salamanders whose migration to water has been successfully completed - often through ice and snow - the males, arriving first, deposit spermatophores on underwater twigs. On our Reinstein adventure we were fortunate to find a half dozen males swimming about underwater, only one or two females having arrived, and we could see a few of the whitish sparmatophores they had deposited.
Chuck netted one and we had an opportunity to see it up close. In our flashlights it was an attractive shiny black with striking yellow spots.
The females pick up those spermataphores with their cloacae. Thus inseminated, they lay egg masses, attaching them to submerged objects. Over a hundred eggs appear like brown dots in each milky white glob.
With their reproductive roles completed, the adult salamanders depart for their upland homes, where they will again retire into obscurity for another year.
This is the time when vernal pools play an important role. Unlike other ponds and streams, they are only temporary and thus they are not populated by fish that would gladly feed on those unguarded egg masses. The proto-salamanders have a far better chance for survival there unless the pools dry out too quickly.
The unattended eggs that are not discovered by predators hatch in 31 to 54 days. They appear at first like tiny wriggling tadpoles and, by the time they escape from the egg mass as larvae, they look a bit like minnows with a keel-like tail and feathery tufts growing from their necks.
The larvae transform over the next two to four months into adult salamanders. Only then will these orphans make their way out of the water to adopt lives like those of their unknown parents.
Their upland predators include snakes, toads, frogs, turtles and birds. Despite this, a few live 30 years.