Critter Curriculum
salamanders photo
Salamanders of Vermont Roughly 360 million years ago, the first vertebrates heaved themselves out of the ocean to begin life on land. These animals were amphibians. Although there were once 15 major groups of amphibians, today only three remain—frogs and toads, salamanders, and wormlike animals called caecilians found only in the tropics.

Salamanders, like other amphibians, have not entirely broken free of their tie to water. All Vermont salamanders, except for the redback salamander, must return to the water for some part of their life. Salamanders need the moisture found in wetlands and on the cool forest floor to keep their skin wet to prevent them from drying out. Typically, salamanders hide in damp, cool places during the day and only venture out in the cooler night air.

Physical Description Salamanders are long-bodied animals, with four short legs and a tail. Unlike lizards, salamanders do not have claws on their toes. They have moist skin and are rather clumsy on land. Depending on the species, salamanders can range from two inches long, like the diminutive four-toed salamander, to twelve inches, like the mudpuppy.

Color varies with each species and life stage. Jefferson salamanders generally grow between four to seven inches long, and have long toes and a long snout. Young adults may have blue markings, which seem to fade on older adults.

Blue-spotted salamanders are usually about five inches long. They are dark, with specks of blue and white. Field guides or identification books often comment that the coloring of blue-spotted salamanders resembles old-fashioned enamel cookware. Blue-spotted and Jefferson salamanders interbreed regularly and produce hybrid young. It is often difficult to tell the difference between members of the two species and their hybridized offspring.

The eastern newt is Vermont’s most commonly encountered and familiar salamander. Most people know it in its juvenile stage—the red eft. Red efts are reddish-orange to bright red in color, and have small black circles with red centers on their backs, and a round tail. They are found in woodlands and under logs and stones. You can often find them out and about during a warm, gentle rain. Their bright color is striking against the dull woodland floor and serves as a warning to predators. Efts produce noxious skin secretions.

Eventually, the red eft begins to transform and become sexually mature. Once this occurs, efts will then travel to ponds where they change into adults. As an adult, the eastern newt is larger than its younger eft sibling, most often growing to three inches long, but occasionally can be found as large as five inches. Newts are yellowish brown to olive green in color, and retain the black circles with red centers on their backs present in the juvenile-eft phase. Their bellies are yellow with black dots. As an adult, the eastern newt has a keeled, or flat tail, which makes it a quick and powerful swimmer. It will spend the rest of its life in the water.

Habits and Habitat Jefferson, blue-spotted, and the spotted salamanders are all part of the same family commonly called mole salamanders. They live in the cool woods, in crevices, under leaves, rotting wood, rocks, or old stone walls, and in the burrows of small mammals. They primarily live underground except during mating season.

The redback salamander is Vermont’s only salamander, indeed its only amphibian, that does not need to return to water for some phase of its reproductive cycle. It lays its eggs on land, under moist stones or rotting logs found on the forest floor.

Mudpuppies, on the other hand, spend their entire lives in the water. They retain the gills other salamanders lose with adulthood. Mudpuppies have three pairs of red, plumed gills. They are found in rivers, large creeks and in Lake Champlain.

The dusky, two-lined and spring salamanders live in brooks and streams. Spring salamanders are the least common of the three, and are limited to the coolest, most densely shaded or spring-fed streams.

Several of Vermont’s salamanders use vernal pools to breed. Vernal pools form when low hollows fill with melting snow and spring rainwater. Salamanders migrate to these pools during nighttime rains, where they mate in an intricate and elaborate dance before laying their eggs.

Abundance Salamanders are incredibly abundant in Vermont. There are more individual redback salamanders than any other vertebrate animal in the northeastern states.

Despite this surprising multitude, total salamander numbers are decreasing. Loss of vital habitat, like vernal pools, is contributing to their declining numbers. Food Items Salamanders eat beetles, earthworms, slugs, spiders, mites, mosquito larvae, and occasionally each other. Aquatic salamanders will also eat small minnows. Mudpuppies eat aquatic insects, crayfish, small fish, and fish eggs. They also eat worms, leeches and snails.

Predators Most salamanders become prey for other animals by chance. Raccoons often feast on spotted, Jefferson, and blue-spotted salamanders during the spring migration to breeding pools. Foxes, skunks, shrews, otters and mink will also readily eat salamanders. Salamanders will also prey on smaller salamanders, eggs, and larvae.

Life Cycle Most of Vermont’s salamanders spend part of their life in water, and part of it on land. Salamanders have an intricate courtship ritual. During late March and early April, male and female spotted salamanders migrate to vernal pools to begin their elaborate and energetic mating dance. They nudge each other with their snouts and then rub against each other. The salamanders will then intertwine and entangle their legs and tales, and roll and wrestle. Eventually the male drops white spermatophores in shallow water. This spermatophore is the sperm packet. The female takes the spermatophores up into her cloaca, allowing her eggs to be fertilized internally. After a wait of several days, she will lay 150 or so eggs in a single mass. The eggs are attached to vegetation in shallow water. One female usually lays two or three egg masses.

Depending on springtime temperatures, the eggs will hatch in one or two months. The small larvae live in the water for 70 to 100 days, when they transform into small adults, and leave the water. This year’s young will breed next spring.

History With the advance of glaciers during the last ice age, Vermont’s salamanders were pushed to ice-free areas in the south. By the time people first arrived on the landscape, however, salamanders were again abundant in Vermont’s woods and waters. With the growth of agriculture and settlements, land was cleared and the habitat for these amphibians was reduced. European settlement greatly accelerated this loss. Other threats increased as civilization advanced, including water pollution, drainage of wetlands, pesticide use, and road construction. Now, Ver-mont’s forests are returning and people are becoming more aware of wildlife and the need to preserve it. Although Vermont is endowed with a rich array of habitats for salamanders, there is still a great need to protect and conserve critical and vulnerable populations through land conservation.

Management Efforts During the past few decades, more has been learned about salamander populations and their natural histories in Vermont. A reptile and amphibian atlas project initiated in 1995 has provided more information on the distribution of Vermont’s salamanders. Biological inventory of wildlife and natural communities is helping identify important habitats and vulnerable populations of salamanders in order to include these in conservation planning efforts. A current study of vernal pools is providing information on habitat characteristics that are important for salamander breeding.

Large-scale land conservation projects, such as the recent addition to public lands in the Nulhegan River Basin, are helping to ensure the continued existence of salamanders in Vermont’s landscape. Environmental legislation also helps sustain vulnerable species of salamanders by protecting their critical habitats.