By Amber Veverka
The springtime pools in Charlotte-area woodlands this week were sheathed with ice – so what does that mean for the salamanders whose eggs are usually clustered in the water this time of year?
The answer, says conservation biologist Don Seriff, is that in most cases, if the cold doesn’t last too long, the salamanders will be just fine.
“The spotted salamanders are usually obvious this time of year in the isolated wetlands and you can identify their egg masses,” said Seriff, who works for Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation. “They’re large masses of jelly-filled goo, and inside the goo are usually hundreds of eggs.” The eggs may already have hatched, and if pools have a thin coating of ice on top, you can even spot salamander larvae beneath, moving slowly because of the cold. Another species, the marbled salamander, which breeds in fall, already should have larvae present in the pool. These look like large tadpoles with gills.
However, if it’s cold enough for long enough, Seriff said, the temporary pools can freeze to the bottom, and salamanders won’t survive the lack of water and oxygen.
This year’s cold winter “may alter their behavior but I don’t think it’ll be detrimental in any way,” said Michael Dorcas, head of the Davidson College Herpetology Lab. For instance, this year, the salamanders Dorcas’ team monitors at Cowan’s Ford in the northwestern part of the county started breeding later this year because of the low temperatures. “Most amphibians are like that,” he said. “They breed at a certain time but if it’s too dry or too cold, they’ll just wait.”
Although Charlotte’s seen long stretches of ice, that’s not the most threatening event for salamanders. “We’ve noticed just anecdotally a big decline in spotted salamander egg masses and we also know from previous surveys that many of their breeding areas have been developed,” Seriff said. “Some of the housing developments in Charlotte are built on salamander breeding grounds or on the edge of them.”
What can local residents do to save salamanders? The No. 1 piece of advice: If you’ve got an isolated wet area that fills with water in spring, don’t drain it.
Spotted salamanders aren’t usually breeding by permanent ponds – there are too many predators, such as bullfrogs – but they seek out ephemeral pools. “These animals have to emerge, go to the wetlands, breed, and their larvae has to grow large enough to escape before it all dries up,” Seriff said. “Some years if there’s consistent drought, those areas don’t fill up at all.”
Salamanders also depend on the upland forest around their wetland breeding areas. “These animals may spend 90% of their life up there,” Dorcas said, “and then come down to the wetland to breed.”
Many Charlotte-area yards back up to tiny streams that eventually join larger creeks. Dusky salamanders and two-lined salamanders live in small streams and creeks, and they need a buffer of natural vegetation near the creek’s edge to shield the water from sediment and lawn chemicals. “You don’t want to have lawn all the way up to those creeks,” Seriff said.
Dorcas also said supporting land conservancies which protect wetlands and the woods around them aids salamander populations. The animals, Dorcas said, are “an important part of our natural heritage in North Carolina…[and] the number of salamanders in the Charlotte metro area has declined substantially, especially stream salamanders and the reason is urbanization.”
Want to learn more?
Mark your calendar for Davidson College’s Annual Reptile Day, a celebration of all things amphibian and reptile, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on April 12, on the campus next to Davidson Presbyterian Church. “There will be lots of live animals,” Dorcas said. For more information go to the Davidson Herpetology Lab.