The great salamander safari

Published 12:58 am Wednesday, April 9, 2003

By Staff
Last week I mentioned wife and I were recently out with the Ed Lowe Foundation folks looking for salamanders.
That prompted a number of questions about these strange creatures. If you're not a student of amphibians, salamanders are in the same family as frogs and toads. They have short, stubby legs and long tails and vary from just a couple inches to over a foot long, depending on the species.
There are ten species of salamanders in Michigan and, though we rarely see them, they are quite common. Most live in woodlands but a few like the mud puppy live an entirely aquatic life in slow moving streams and lakes.
Our mission at the Ed Lowe Foundation was to find three species, the yellow-spotted, blue-spotted and tiger salamanders. It seems there is an unusual occurrence happening at the 4,000 acre Foundation. These species are interbreeding in strange combinations and creating some weird hybrids. These mutant ninja hybrids are larger and more active than their straight parents. Salamanders commonly interbreed but what's going on at the Foundation (too complicated to explain here) is only known to occur in one other place, some island in Lake Erie.
Most salamanders hibernate during the winter. As soon as the snow is mostly melted these three species emerge and head for vernal ponds for the mating ritual. 'What kinda' ponds?' Vernal ponds. Those are the small, shallow ponds found in the woods in the spring and early summer. By late summer they are mostly dry. Apparently fish love salamander caviar so the breeding ponds must be entirely fish free, which is one reason why the salamanders chose these seasonal woodland puddles. Anyway, for a week or two in the early spring they crawl out from under their logs and, under the darkness of night, migrate to these ponds. Hip boot clad and brandishing flashlights we were in hot pursuit.
Of the three species we were looking for the blue-spotted is the smallest, ranging from 4 – 5 1/2 inches long. They are typically black with small, neon blue spots and flecks on their backs and tails. They're really quite striking. The yellow spotted salamander is a bit larger, coming in at 6 – 8 inches long. They are also black to dark gray in color and have two rows of irregular yellow or orange spots along their back and tail. The grand daddy of the bunch is the tiger salamander. These behemoths can be over a foot long, large enough to be unsettling if you're not endeared to slimy, crawly, squirmy things. They are dark brown to olive with large, irregular yellow, brown or orange blotches on their backs and tails.
All three have quite similar habits. They live under logs and other debris or sometimes down mouse, and other animal holes. The blue-spotted and yellow-spotted prefer moist woodlands. The tiger doesn't mind somewhat more open areas and can be found from woodlands to the city suburbs. Salamanders don't wander around much but when they do it's only at night. They're carnivores, eating most anything they can catch including worms, grubs, spiders and even their smaller soul mates and their own offspring.
Mating is a most unusual and surely ungratifying affair. After some nudging and prodding of the female, the male deposits his magic potion on the ground in front of the female. She then picks it up and stores it in her cloaca, a multi-functional internal organ, where the eggs are fertilized. The eggs are deposited in a jelly like mass attached to submerged sticks or vegetation. In two to four months the larvae hatch. The larvae are very similar to frog tadpoles, living underwater and breathing through gills. Eventually legs develop, the gills are replaced with lungs and the adult salamander leaves the water for life on dry land.
Salamanders have been mysterious creatures from the very beginning. The name salamander comes from the Greek language meaning 'emerging from fire.' We speculate that when ancients threw logs onto the fire salamanders living in the rotten wood and fleeing the heat appeared to emerge from the flames like some deity. I suppose that would liven up a boring evening around the campfire.
Carpe diem.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at