December in Ontario means colder temperatures, shorter days, and the prospect of snow at anytime. Therefore, it is not a time that most people would think is good to head out to observe salamanders. However, this past weekend’s relatively mild temperatures were ideal enough for me to go out and attempt to encounter these amphibians. For maximum success I decided to try a few different sites. On Saturday, I ventured out to my first stop, one of the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River. Here I headed to a forested ridge, and It wasn’t long before I came across three Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). Although I have seen these lungless salamanders legions of times before, I never cease to be less then thrilled to see them. There bright red dorsal stripes also make for a striking sight against the often dark and murky looking substrate or leaf litter where I encounter them.
Later in the evening I headed to another spot, a small creek with a fast torrent. Here in the very cold waters I saw four of Ontario’s largest salamander species, the Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus). This species can reach nearly 20 inches in length. As I stood still in the water, I watched one slowly creep over the rocky bottom. Others were seen laying stationary in their watery realm. These salamanders are a fully aquatic species equipped with frill-like external gills. They resemble over grown versions of the larval stages of most other salamander species. But Mudpuppies do not metamorphosis into terrestrial creatures. They keep their ”juvenile” characteristics even as mature, breeding capable, adults. A condition known as neoteny.
The next morning I headed out again. The first stop of the day was a forested ravine. In a short time 8 Red-backed Salamanders were seen. One of which was leadback phased. In this phase, P. cincerues lacks a red/orange dorsal stripe. Instead the animal is uniformly purplish-gray in colour. Some Leadbacks also contain tiny silver speckles that cover the body. The one at the ravine was a speckled form.
With the ravine search completed it was time to make one more stop. This time to a small pond on private lands. Thankfully, the landowner had invited me out to explore the pond. As I arrived, it was only moments before I would see an Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). These salamanders are semi-aquatic, and differ from the mudpuppies as they do not have large external gills. Therefore, they do come to the surface for little gulps of air. They are also members of the Salamandridae family, while the Mudpuppies are in the Proteidae family.
Most people only encounter Eastern Newts in their terrestrial juvenile stage, called a Red Eft. Due to their bright coloration (to warn predators that they are toxic to eat), Efts tend to be bolder than most other salamanders and often wander around the forest floor out from cover. This is why Efts are seen more ften. As adults, their color changes to an olive green, with a bright yellow ventral surface. Both Efts and adult Newts have red-spots.
This pond was teaming with adult newts. As I sat on its edge a saw them swimming and crawling around on the bottom. Some would peak their heads out from the crevices of rocks. In a short time dozens of these amphibians were seen. The newts at this pond were remarkable in terms of their color and pattern. Some had orangish bellies, opposed to the more common yellow. Others had brilliant stripes along their tails. Several had great clusters of black flecks and speckles on their dorsal surface. A few even had dorsal stripes.
Seeing so many salamanders of differing species (and families) in December was a great experience! Luckily, when winter does arrive in full force the Mudpuppies and Newts can still be encountered in areas where the water doesn’t freeze to the bottom.
By Matt Ellerbeck, SaveTheSalamanders.com