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Nature’s Best by Elma Chapman Indiana Master Naturalist

Yes, I know it was still snowing this past week, but this week’s forecast is much better, and in between the snowfalls, we had a definitely spring-like visitor. I can’t claim to have found it, or even seen it because I wasn’t home at the time, but my husband found it and took a picture of it for proof. At first he thought it was a stick in the driveway, but then it moved. His next guess was that it was a baby alligator that someone had decided they didn’t want to keep as a pet and had just turned loose, but then he realized that the “snout” he thought he was looking at was really just a shadow and the creature in question had a decidedly rounded face, not a long, pointy one. And so finally the critter was identified as a salamander. Pretty clever of Gary to think to get a tape measure to show the approximate length of the guy! After posing for the photograph, the salamander continued on his or her journey, continuing toward Riverbend Park, presumably looking for a vernal pool.

Looking at pictures on the internet, both of us thought it was a spotted salamander, but the head of the Middlebury Parks, Tom Enright, looked at the picture and thinks it’s a tiger salamander. Both are common in this area but it’s very uncommon to see either one, especially on a concrete driveway in the middle of the day. The difference in appearance is that the tiger salamander has spots arranged haphazardly over its back, whereas the spotted salamander has the spots arranged in two rows and usually has a light-colored belly. The tiger salamander is the largest salamander species at 7-13 inches long, but the spotted salamander is also large and can grow to just over nine inches.

Salamanders are amphibians and both tiger salamanders and spotted salamanders are in a group called mole salamanders because they mostly live underground. When they do come up it’s usually at night, but during the breeding season they can be seen during the day sometimes, looking for a mate or a vernal pond in which to lay their eggs. Vernal ponds are preferred because they dry up as summer heats up, and by then the eggs have hatched and the larvae have turned into adults and can leave the water. But because vernal ponds dry up, they don’t contain fish, and fish sometimes feed on the eggs and/or larvae. The newly hatched larvae closely resemble a tadpole, but they have feathery gills branching out from their heads. Also of interest: the larvae in their aquatic habitat will feed on mosquito larvae!

The breeding season is March and April, and usually they come up on a warm day after a heavy rain, which is just about exactly the weather we had last week. They lay their eggs in masses of about 100 eggs. Spotted salamander egg masses are firmer than tiger salamander eggs, which are extremely fragile.

Adult salamanders eat snails, worms, slugs, spiders and insects. In turn, they are eaten by raccoons, skunks, turtles, opossums, snakes, and even squirrels. In fact, sometimes tiger salamanders are sold as bait to fishermen. If they survive all these predators, they can live to be about 20 years old, and some in captivity have lived up to age 25.

Salamanders live underground because they require high humidity to keep from drying out. If you do find one, it will probably be because you turned over a log or pile of rotting leaves that one was resting under. Or because you got extremely lucky while surveying your driveway!