Be honest now. How many of you have squashed an Eft? That is, how many of you have inadvertently run over the terrestrial, juvenile, bright-red form of the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)? I know I’m guilty, probably several times over. Unless you’ve transcended the American addiction to cars, you’ve probably crushed Efts and other amphibians, too. We can reduce chances of that tragedy by slowing down and minimizing night-time driving.
Efts are the salamanders we most often see trying to cross roads in northern New York. Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) may be even more abundant in our forests, but unless you commonly overturn rocks and logs, you seldom see them.
With complex life-cycles involving both land and water, salamanders quietly amble and swim throughout our Adirondack forests and waterways. The typical human resident of Adirondack Park may only see a few salamanders species in her lifetime, but — according to a field guide we all should consult, The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State, by James Gibbs and fellow herpetologists — eighteen salamander species are native to New York, and at least half of these reach the northern part of our state.
Why Salamanders are Important
Along with salamanders’ intrinsic value and beauty, these little creatures are important for preying on insects (especially mosquitoes, in the amphibians’ and insects’ respective aquatic larval forms), regulating soil nutrient and carbon flows, serving as prey for birds and other larger animals, and telling us how healthy the waterways and forests of our home are.
Simply speaking, abundant and diverse suites of salamanders indicate healthy lands and waters. Impoverished salamander populations mean habitat loss and degradation. Fortunately, our salamander populations in Adirondack Park are relatively healthy and diverse, as compared to those of more fragmented regions.
The great entomologist and conservation biologist EO Wilson thirty years ago wrote an essay for Conservation Biology about “The Little Things that Run the World”. Wilson (author of The Diversity of Life, Half-Earth, and many other important books) showed in this article how small organisms we barely notice are immensely important to life on Earth. Indeed, Wilson reminded us, we humans would probably not long survive without the Little Things that Run the World — though they, in contrast, might do better without us.
Conservation biology has lately been affirming that big creatures — especially keystone carnivores like Wolf and Puma — are also tremendously important to natural checks and balances maintaining biological diversity. Wilson’s point stands, though: We ignore or disparage tiny creatures, like bugs and slugs, at our own loss. In the Northern Forest of the Adirondack Park and surrounds, salamanders are among those little creatures of outgrown importance.
Indeed, as forest ecologist Joan Maloof notes in her beautiful new book Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests, salamanders may comprise much of the animal mass of a healthy mature forest — potentially outweighing all mammals and birds combined. Dr. Maloof also explains why salamanders fare best in old-growth forest, with abundant down logs and vernal pools and other moist micro-climates.
Mudpuppies: Largest Salamanders in Northern New York
Grandest of salamanders to extend its range into northern New York is the Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), which may grow to a foot and half long! Mudpuppies, like their bigger distant cousins Hellbenders (whose range extends into southern New York), but unlike their smaller salamander cousins, are fully aquatic. Mudpuppies inhabit streams, ponds, and lakes across much of New York, including the Champlain Valley, but apparently do not reach the colder waters of the central Adirondacks. Despite Mudpuppies’ wide distribution, rare and lucky is the person who sees one.
Like many salamanders, Mudpuppies eat a wide variety of smaller animals, including insects and mollusks. Wrongfully, people sometimes kill Mudpuppies — intentionally, under the mistaken impression that the salamanders are poisonous; or unintentionally, with lampricide.
Dangers to Salamanders
Jefferson Salamanders (Ambystoma jeffersonianum) live throughout forests of New York, but again, are not often seen by people. Part of a family known as “mole salamanders”, Jeffersons, after their larval aquatic phase, live largely underground, and may depend on burrows dug by small rodents. Like many semi-aquatic and aquatic animals, mole salamanders are susceptible to acid rain — a problem that may worsen again, if political officials succeed in weakening clean air laws.
Jefferson Salamanders may hybridize with Blue-spotted Salamanders (A. laterale), also native in our region, yielding complex genomes that blur species boundaries (and hinting at pairings that make our social mores seem dull!). Another cousin, the Spotted Salamander (A. maculatum), you are more likely to see, as brilliant yellow or orange spots on a black back trying to cross a wet road.
These mole salamanders are among the earlier of spring migrants, traveling to vernal pools and wetlands soon after snow and ice melt to find mates and breed. Vernal pools and wetlands are essential to salamanders’ and frogs’ well-being, for they are generally free of the fish that would otherwise eat the young amphibians. Thus, no intelligent politician would vow to “drain the swamp”. Where we don’t protect wetlands — which we do, to varying degrees, in Adirondack Park — we lose much of our wildlife.
Other salamanders of our region include Northern and Allegheny Mountain Dusky, Northern Two-lined, and Spring Salamanders. These modest-sized salamanders inhabit streams, springs, and seeps, as well as vernal pools and intact forests. They, too, may be lost from an area if it is heavily logged or wetlands drained or new roads built.
So please look closely if you must drive at night, especially on warm rainy nights in spring, when salamanders and frogs by the millions — but each one an individual with yearnings and families, just like you and me — may be migrating to breeding pools. Even if invisible to us most of the time, salamanders are helping keep our forest home healthy and diverse.
Click on any image to enlarge its size for a closer look!
[Special thanks to Lake Placid-based nature conservation photographer Larry Master (www.masterimages.org) for permission to feature several of his photographs in this post.]