Catch the Fever

Tiger-fever seems to have plagued many of my Northeastern brethren, as it does at this time of year annually.  In fact, I'm not sure what the priority would be if given a turkey or a tiger for Thanksgiving - family beatings aside.  My symptoms arrived, and I happened to find the cure (a beautiful tigrinum) a bit early this season.  This left me to ponder the fascination with these creatures, when I had suddenly realized I had not seen a Blue-spotted Salamander all year!

This was not going to sit well with me.  Two weekends ago, I made sure to include a stop into my birding plans.  Success was easy... since discovering this spot years ago, its proven to be a lock.  So this blog edition isn't about perseverance or overcoming the odds.  I've decided to simply introduce you to the five mole salamanders we in the Northeast can claim as our own.  If you are familiar with them, then maybe you are reading because you are currently suffering from tiger-fever.  If not, enjoy...

1.  Jefferson Salamander - Ambystoma jeffersonianum

These guys are definitely the most aesthetically unappealing of the group.  Not many would argue.  Nonetheless, these salamanders kick some ass.  They are usually the first group of salamanders to arrive to the vernals (seasonal ponds).  Sometimes, I find it hard to believe they've made their way out of their burrows and across the frozen ground - often to find cracks in the ice at the edge of their pools.  

In fact, one year I thought I had it figured out.  It was the first warm rain.  Snow was on the ground.  It had been cold for a while.  I arrived at my spot to help some of these guys cross the road in the rain.  In 45 minutes, I saw about 100 Jeffs and 50 Spotteds. Would you believe every single Jefferson was heading away from the pool, while every last Spotted was headed toward the pool?!  Not a single exception.  I still have no idea when the Jeff's would have even moved before that night.

2.  Blue-spotted Salamander - Ambystoma laterale

This blog isn't meant to bore you, but I should quickly mention something here.  In my area, the Jefferson and Blue-spotted Salamanders hybridize.  They call it the "jeffersonianum/laterale complex."  Basically, there's no way to tell if your salamander is a pure species or a mix without a DNA sample.  That said, one of my favorite spots does have a lot of pure laterale (as evidenced by a scientific study).  I'm not going to pretend the salamanders I find are pure, but I like knowing that they physically look like blue-spots should look, and that they "might" be pure.

These are typically the smallest of our mole salamanders, and let's face it - the mole salamander family's draw is the size.  Nonetheless, I'm a sucker for the color blue anytime it shows up in nature... especially in its fauna.

3.  Marbled Salamander - Ambystoma opacum

Marbled salamanders are 4-5 inches of chunky amphibian.  Their jet black and silver or white bars are striking..  They are also our only Autumn breeder.  When the rain hits at night in early September, they will march toward their vernal pools.  After breeding, the female will lay eggs under cover or leaf litter and guard them.

Its amazing - she will choose a spot at the edge of the vernal and as it increases in depth, rising up the bank over the coming weeks, it will flood her chamber.  The deposited eggs will hatch in the water shortly after, and the larvae will enjoy a jump on the competition as they grow all winter long.  They have a unique niche in our forests and have eeked out their existence perfectly... doing it differently than every other species around.

4.  Spotted Salamander - Ambystoma maculatum

Spring illuminates different images in the mind.  For some, its robins; others - flowering plants braving life above the soil.  In the herp-world, it may be Spring Peepers or even Spotted Turtles.  For me, when I think Spring - Spotted Salamanders move across my mind.  That anchor is entrenched deep and will probably not go away as long as I call this region my home.

Spotteds are our second largest mole salamander and by far, the most common.  Their bright beautiful spots, large, stout size, and facial structure which makes anthropomorphization a cinch produces an endearing persona.   ...a salamanderona?  

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is they may be a gateway herp for most if you can get people out on rainy Spring nights,  doing some hands-on conservation work.  They will always need our help.  And while I hold all beings as equal in our circle of life, all of the above may help a newcomer become excited with the sense of helping something "substantial."  It's definitely a great starting point.  Keep it in mind this Spring.  Take a friend out to save some amphibs, or volunteer at a known crossing. *There will be a much more detailed blog on this in February.

5.  Eastern Tiger Salamander - Ambystoma t. tigrinum

Finally, the catalyst for writing this blog.  Tiger-fever is sweeping from Northern Florida all the way up through Long Island, NY.  I even have dear friends in Boston lamenting that they can't make it down for even the opportunity to try finding one.  

I'm gonna go ahead and say it - Spotteds are better looking.  Marbleds are probably better looking.  That said, Tigers are definitely the most sought after of the mole salamanders.  They are our largest mole.  Their earth tones are beautiful and can sometimes exhibit high yellow or lavender undertones.  As far as the eyes, they deserve the trophy.  Their eye pattern and color is the most unique of all the salamanders in the Northeast catalog.  They look like they are spending a lifetime, trippin' balls.

Everything aforementioned, and the fact that they are endangered anywhere near and within the Northeast, keeps us enthralled and intrigued.  They are Winter breeders and are just beginning to stir.  Soon they will be in the pools making babies and living under the ice for the season.  What's not to like?!

...step into the outdoors.

Spotted, Marbled, and Tiger Salamander found within a few feet of one another on a rainy March night on the Delmarva Peninsula.