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NATURE NOTE - Number 47 June 28, 2022
During the summer there will be lots of opportunities to take your scouts outside to see and experience nature. One of the animal groups we don’t hear much about, but you might run into are…
Our current topic: Salamanders
Salamanders are not found very often, but they are there in the right habitat, and you can count on some excitement among your scouts when one is discovered under a creek rock or damp log. So let’s cover some background first.
Salamanders are amphibians, meaning they will, at some stage in their life, need a water habitat. Even though they may look similar at first, lizards and salamanders are not close kin. Lizards are reptiles. Lizards have scales for skin (like snakes), and claws on their feet (like turtles). Salamanders have a smooth, moist skin, and clawless feet. (See NATURE NOTES # 1, 22 and 27 for a discussion on our common lizards, reptiles and turtles.) Because of their dependency on water, salamanders can best be found in streams or in rather damp places, especially after a rain. Many species avoid the day-time heat that will dry out their moist skin, and come out only in the darkness to hunt a variety of insects, worms, invertebrate, and even tiny fish. Some species spend most of their time underground, where it is not only cooler, but safer from predators. Some salamanders lay eggs in the water like frogs, while others lay eggs in moist sites on ground. Some species have gills like fish, to breathe while others breathe through their skin.
While they may not be easy to find, North America, and especially the Southern Appalachians, is the home to more species of salamanders than any other place on earth. There are known to be over 50 species within Virginia alone. There are at least four species that are endemic to the state, meaning that they are found nowhere else in the world. Some are rather site-specific are very unlikely to be encountered unless you search that very specific site. A recent article in VIRGINIA WILDLIFE described a salamander search by a group of experienced naturalists in southwest Virginia. (Salamanders fall under the expertise of herpetologists, who cover amphibians and reptiles.) Their outing found a total of nine species, such as the Northern Grey-cheeked salamander (found only in SW Virginia), the Wellers salamander (found only in high spruce-fir forests), and the large (8 inches) Black-bellied salamander. While some species are easy to identify, such as the Blue Ridge two-lined salamander, others require some very close observation and knowledge of not-so-easy-to-see markings. It might be too much to expect scouts to find and identify several species on an outing, but you never know what you might find once you start looking. Taking pictures of what you find will allow you to do research later in a field guide. One of the more common salamanders is the Red-spotted Newt (newts are a sub-family of the order Caudata, which includes all salamanders) which is found in the creeks and moist floors of the forest on the scout reservation. The most visible form of this species is the bright orange Red Eft, measuring 1 ½ to 3 ½ inches, that is a land-dweller, that will eventually return to the water in a much duller color but retaining the many black dots on its back. For protection against predators, this salamander’s skin glands secret an unpleasant or toxic product that discourages predators.
Some folks may be familiar with very large Mudpuppies (8-16”), Waterdogs (6-8”) and Hellbenders (12-24”). These large salamanders are strictly aquatic. They never move onto land and are normally found in larger bodies of water. Also keep in mind that salamanders are often sold as fish bait to fishermen, and this can cause unusual species being introduced into waters that are not part of the native range of the species.
If you want more information on local salamanders, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources publishes “A Guide to the Salamanders of Virginia” (along with several other good guides to Virginia wildlife). Go to GoOutdoorsVirginia.com for ordering information. Also, a number of field guides on reptiles and amphibians will provide more information and identification on many species in our area.
Again, salamanders are not easy to find, but if you spend much time along a creek on in the damp woods after a summer rain, you are likely to come across one. Keep a look-out for them, and give your scouts the opportunity to see a salamander. Night time is probably the best time to go “salamander looking”. A flashlight or headlamp is a necessity if you go looking for them at night.
Keep in mind that if your scouts do find a salamander, they should handle it very carefully – if at all – and return it to the same spot where it was found, being careful to replace the overturned log or rock. And don’t crush the salamander. Bug spray or other contaminants on your hands can harm these creatures, so maybe that cell phone photo is the best way to capture the moment.