The Incredible Importance of Puddles
Recently, it has been brought to my attention that my writing never strays from three topic areas.
A reader pointed out that my articles are always about birds, wildflowers and/or reproduction.
I would usually argue that my column is much more complex and diverse. However, this week, I have no ground to stand on. Readers beware. This column is on the intriguing love lives of awakening amphibians.
This week’s question came in from an intrigued hiker who was lucky enough to observe a Casanova of early spring.
I recently went for a hike on a very soggy, relatively warm evening in Boone. In a small puddle away from any large body of water, I saw salamanders (probably five of them). They were black and yellow. One seemed to be doing a little dance. What were they? Do salamanders normally become active this early in spring? – John S., Boone
John, the salamanders that you saw in the pond were spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum), and they are right on time.
For more than 300 million years, salamanders and other amphibians have returned to the water in spring to lay their eggs. And there is a reason why they choose only small, temporary woodland puddles, which are also called vernal pools.
By breeding in isolated habitats rather than in the larger permanent ponds and lakes, their tadpoles are safe from hungry turtles and fish. If all goes according to plan, the tadpoles will metamorphose into miniature spotted salamanders by late summer and leave the puddle before it dries up.
The large spotted salamander is one of the earliest amphibians to awaken in early spring. They will emerge from their winter den below the ground when the daytime temperatures approach 50 degrees Fahrenheit and after the first spring rain.
It seems that they have an imprinted memory of their own birth place and route home, for they return to the same woodland puddle year after year upon their spring awakening.
In the puddle, the male will first deposit small, gelatinous packets of sperm, which are called spermatophores. He will then try to persuade females into choosing his by doing the “little dance” that you observed. If a female is impressed, she will take one of them and become fertilized.
Within a few days, the female spotted salamander will deposit hundreds of eggs on underwater sticks in the vernal pool.
Other amphibians that awaken early in spring are spring peeper frogs and wood frogs. These creatures are great indicators of the health of an ecosystem because their thin, moist skin is very susceptible to pollutants and acid rain.
If you are considering filling in a vernal pool on your property, please think again. Though a puddle may not seem important, it is a vital part of your backyard ecosystem.
You can watch a video of the spotted salamander courtship on Dear Naturalist’s Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dear-Naturalist.
If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (firstname.lastname@example.org) All of your questions will be answered. One or two will be featured next week. See you on the trails!
Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.