A different kind of congress

  • Fire salamanders are the most common type in Europe.  —pixabay.com

  • ** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE **Julian Peacock of Brooklyn, New York, center, and his brother, Sam, take a peek at a salamander held by their father, Robert Peacock, during a hike at the Massachusetts Audubon's High Ledges site in Shelburne, Mass., in this photo taken July 25, 2006. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) CHARLES KRUPA—ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Spotted salamanders swim in a tub at Region 8 Department of Environmental Conservation headquarters in Avon, N.Y. AP file

  • In this photo taken Thursday Oct. 13, 2011, a Farallon Arboreal Salamander is held at the Farallones National Wildlife Refuge, Calif. This chain of small rock islands that jut sharply out of the Pacific Ocean 27 miles west of San Francisco is known as “California's Gallapagos” for its abundance of squawking seabirds, barking sea lions and great white sharks. Yet amid this menagerie lives an intruder: brown house mice brought by human vessels from another time that have now colonized here in a density unseen anywhere else in the world, researchers said. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) Eric Risberg—AP

For the Monitor
Saturday, April 01, 2017

The pages of this paper are full of political news, and this month I’ve decided to jump in and also discuss the activities of congress. But keep reading, because it’s not what you might think.

Most people are familiar with terms like a flock of birds, a herd of deer or a school of fish. But did you know a group of salamanders is called a congress? I’ll leave it to others to examine what salamanders and lawmakers have in common, but suffice it to say, this is a busy season for both the two-legged and the four-legged congresses.

Salamanders are amphibians, a word derived from the Greek amphibia, which means “living a double life.” This class of animals (which also includes frogs and toads) spends part of their life in or near water, breathing through gills and part of their life on land breathing with lungs. The amazing transformation of tadpoles to frogs is well known, but how does it work with salamanders? That depends on the species.

New Hampshire is home to 11 native species of salamanders. Some are extremely rare, such as the black Slimy Salamander, which despite its relatively large size (4.5 to 7 inches) has not been observed in recent years. In contrast, the small Redback Salamander (2 to 4 inches) is so abundant it’s combined biomass is said to be greater than that of any other forest vertebrate in the state.

Regardless of size or abundance, all salamanders start in an egg. These eggs may be laid in a permanent body of water as in the case of the Eastern Red-spotted Newt. This species is fully aquatic as an adult, and the female lays her 400 eggs one at a time on submerged vegetation. The female Dusky Salamander, spending her adult life on land, lays her eggs near a stream, under a log or moss. She, like several salamander species, will guard her eggs until they hatch out into larval salamanders and make their way into water. This also happens with the Spring Salamander who guards her eggs after she attaches them to the underside of a rock or log in a spring or clear stream.

Other species, such as the Spotted Salamander (with yellow spots) migrate quite a distance to lay their eggs. In late March and April, depending on the year, these mole salamanders, so named because they spend most of their adult life underground, emerge and travel to vernal pools to mate and lay eggs. These temporary nursery pools form from melted snow and spring rain and dry up by summer. As a result, there are no fish and fewer larvae-eating predators, making vernal pools safe nurseries.

Salamander migration to vernal pools occurs on rainy nights. If you are out driving on backroads at night in the rain, watch for moving creatures in the road. Many species of frogs will also join the salamanders for this perilous venture to perpetuate their species. The ones who make it across the gauntlet of speeding vehicles will gather to congress in the water.

Male Spotted Salamanders court the females in writhing, watery swarms. They deposit spermatophores on the bottom of the pool which females pick up and use to internally fertilize their eggs. Within a few days, the eggs are laid in firm softball-sized gelatinous masses containing 30 to 250 eggs, attached to an underwater twig. The parents don’t stick around to guard their eggs or young. They head back to the woods and disappear below the ground, not to be seen again until next spring.

The Spotted Salamander larvae will hatch from the eggs within six to eight weeks. Unlike tadpoles, the young salamanders have feathery external gills. They also differ from baby frogs in that they are carnivorous, feeding on small insect larvae, worms and other invertebrates. As the pools begin to shrink and dry up, larval development accelerates. By the time they emerge, the external gills have disappeared and the creature is black with yellow spots, just like the adults.

The specifics of this transformation may vary, depending on the species of salamander and its habitat. However, they all depend on fresh, clean water to continue their life cycle. So if you find yourself distressed by April showers, remember how important the rain is for the survival of our amphibian neighbors.