Early Spring Salamanders

Ezra Staengl
March 4, 2021

A few days ago, I went exploring in my backyard looking for signs of spring.  It had heavily rained the night before, so everything was wet and muddy.  Trickles of water flowed down the bottoms of the drainages towards a swamp in the floodplain of the North Fork of the Rockfish River.  I hoped that the wetness and the relative warmth would bring salamanders to the surface and make them easier for me to find. 

As I walked, I flipped over small logs and rocks, being careful to gently put them back in place when I was done searching underneath them.  I found several red-backed salamanders, one of the most common and widely distributed salamander species in our area.  I also saw various arthropods, including millipedes and beetles. 

Eventually, I reached the bottom of the slope and entered the wide, flat floodplain.  Tall tuliptrees, red maples, and American sycamores dominated the canopy, while widely spaced stands of winterberry, smooth alder, American hazelnut, and green ash made up the open understory.  On the ground, the brilliant green leaves of eastern skunk cabbage were just beginning to unfurl around their strange looking spherical flowers.  Hummocks of Sphagnum moss grew out of the shallow brown water in places, although at this time of year the Sphagnum’s color was muted to a dull, dark green.

I continued flipping over logs around the edges of the swamp, finding several more red-backed salamanders.  Starting to get frustrated, I tore a large chunk of rotting wood out of a log.  To my surprise, I saw a small, intricately patterned orange salamander underneath.  It didn’t look like a red-backed salamander — it was more orange, had a noticeable constriction at the base of its tail, and even appeared superficially scaly in texture because of the folds of its skin — but just to make sure I gently flipped it over.  Sure enough, its belly was bright white with sharply contrasting black spots, a pattern distinctive to four-toed salamander, a species I’d never seen before.  Closer inspection revealed that it did in fact have only four toes on both its front and hind feet.  I excitedly photographed the salamander, and then put it back and did my best to reconstruct the log around it.  I found a second individual under a log nearby.  When I told my brother Theo about them later, he immediately went to look in the swamp and found five more. 

When I returned home, I read about the species, and learned that they’re closely associated with swamp forest habitats similar to the one behind my house.  They mate in fall, but the females wait until moist nights in early spring to move to the vernal pools, swamps, or other semi-permanent fishless wetlands where they lay their eggs.  Apparently, the species is known for laying its eggs in moist moss clumps just above water — particularly Sphagnum — so that when the larvae hatch, they fall into the water.  The individuals my brother and I encountered might’ve been females on their way to or from laying eggs in the nearby Sphagnum clumps.