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Spring Migrations - Salamanders on the move

Searching for salamanders on the move fascinates all ages. Do be careful handling any salamander, human touch can irritate the salamanders skin.

The salamander migration that captures people’s interest in Vermont and around the Northeast is their spring movement from underground wintering areas. According to James Andrews, a research herpetologist from Middlebury College, the salamanders move from upland well-drained locations down to standing water in a pond, vernal pool, semi-permanent pool, forested swamp or marsh edge in order to mate and lay their eggs.

The reason they are in such a hurry to move very early in the spring is that the vernal pools, marsh and wetland edges where they lay their eggs may dry up in a few months. The eggs need to hatch, the larvae need to live and grow through their aquatic stage, and hopefully metamorphose and emerge from the wetland before the water dries up later in summer, Andrews says.
The advantage of breeding in this shallow temporary water is that there are fewer or no fish, newt and invertebrate predators, and in some cases there is more emergent vegetation for the young to hide and feed in.

In addition to the salamanders, wood frogs and spring peepers also make this migration in early spring. This spring breeding behavior is not the only migration that amphibians make, but it is the best known one, Andrews points out.

All the adult salamanders need to go back up to the hills at some point, some to feed, some just to overwinter. This movement is not as well concentrated in time and less often observed.

Of course the young salamanders that are leaving the wetlands in late summer also need to head to more upland terrestrial foraging areas when they leave the ponds.  Other species of amphibian such as American Toads and Gray Tree Frogs also migrate to breeding habitat but later on in the spring.
Red-backed Salamanders often move in early spring from the well-drained upland sites where they spent the winter to the moister lowlands for foraging and egg-laying (later in June) in moist leaf litter or in moist rotten logs.

Amphibians will also move to wetlands if their upland sites are drying out.  However, it is the spring movement of Spotted Salamanders, Jefferson Salamanders, Blue-spotted Salamanders, Four-toed Salamanders, Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers that most people are aware of.  Andrews notes that it is the most dramatic and concentrated of the migrations.

Did you know? The living material (biomass) of salamanders in a natural forest exceeds the total biomass of all the brids in the same area.

How many Salamanders?
Vernal pools lie hidden in many forest patches in Vermont. Do you know how many species live here? Guess which salamander is pictured here and then read the full list of salamander species found in Vermont below.

What is the difference between a newt and a salamander? The distinction is more historic and linguistic than scientific. Newts are a subgroup of salamanders. All newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts!

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