We may not like the chaotic mood swings of spring weather. For salamanders t’s a signal to get moving. These shy amphibians live most of their lives in the moist soil of the forest and are rarely seen. You may confuse them with lizards, but they are actually related to toads and frogs.
Like lizards, they have a long tail and a narrow body but that is where the similarities end. Lizards are reptiles, with dry scaly skin. Salamanders have moist skin which some actually use to breathe. They are called amphibians because they live part of their lifecycle in the water and part on land.
Many of the salamanders in our area mate in the spring. As soon as the ground begins to thaw they emerge from their deep burrows in the ground to find a wetland pool. After mating, the female salamander will lay a large mass of jelly-like eggs. These large clumps of eggs are often attached to sticks, rocks, or leaves in the water.
When they are born, many salamanders go through an aquatic stage life like a tadpole. As they become adults they lose their gills gain eyelids, a tongue and the ability to walk on land. Salamanders live in wooded areas but are very quiet. Unlike other amphibians around a wetland pool, salamanders are rarely vocal. These timid critters have their own nifty nature skills.
Many species of salamanders have very colorful spots and stripes which can serve to warn predators of their nasty taste. They also have the ability to squirt poison through their skin as a defense mechanism. If that isn’t cool enough they can shed their long tails if grabbed by a predator and later regrow it.
Salamanders play a very important role in nature. They are a critical part of the food chain, eating insects, spiders, worms, ticks, slugs, and mosquito larvae. In turn, they are a food source for other animals like owls and snakes. Like the canary in the coalmine, they are indicators of the health of the environment. Their permeable skin is very susceptible to pollution.
Indiana has over 20 species of salamanders, many are in trouble. They need undisturbed woodlands with temporary or vernal wetland pools. Their habitat is disappearing and fragmented by roads. Chemical run-off, road salt, and pesticides also contribute to their declining numbers.
Spring is the best time to look for them. Salamanders can be found under leaves and rotting logs in the moist soil of the woods and near wetland areas. Take care when you turn over a log, you may have just ripped the roof off his home. Instead, gently roll back logs and rocks after you find them.
Some of the species you might find locally are the Spotted salamander, Small-mouthed salamander, Jefferson salamander, Red-backed salamander, or the Tiger salamander. Their skin is very sensitive to chemicals, lotions, or bug sprays that might be on your hands. It’s best for your sake and the salamanders’ to avoid handling them in the wild.
Julie Borgmann is the executive director of Red-tail Land Conservancy. Her passion is connecting people to nature for conservation and well-being. Visit www.fortheland.org to learn about volunteer opportunities, find nature preserves to visit, or a guided outing.