A Toadally Awesome Night

Posting by CobraCaroline

Bats, toads and salamanders — oh my!  And don’t forget worms!

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Naturalist Ethan Demontrates Worm Handling Technique

A small group of Reptiles Alive staff and friends, along with budding herpetologist Ethan, set off on an adventure of amphibian proportions last weekend.

Tuatara Tony, who is also a naturalist with Fairfax County,  arranged for us to have access to a western Fairfax, VA park after dark, so we headed out into the woods around 6 pm.  It was a bit cool with temperatures in the mid 50′s.  The largest full moon in years was also set to rise, so we a were unsure of how successful our herp search would be.

As we headed into the darkening woods, young Ethan was delighted and excited with each and every earthworm we discovered.  Ants and small spiders also caught his attention and he was sure to point out to each of us any small invertebrate we failed to mention as we carefully lifted logs and rocks.

We found a few small red-backed salamanders under the logs, but no spotted salamanders which we were hoping for.

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Red-backed Salamander – unstriped or “lead-back” color phase

We found a small vernal pool near the edge of the woods and Ethan saw his first mating pair of toads.

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American Toads

As we headed back into the woods, we followed a small stream that was filled with spotted salamander eggs.  It seemed we were too late to see any of the adults, but just then, Joe called out “Hey guys, I think I’ve found one!”  We rushed over and sure enough it was a big beautiful spottie!

The sun had now set and the woods were getting darker.  We saw a few bats fly over head, along with the low flying jets landing at Dulles airport. Between the roars of jet-engines, another more melodious sound could be heard.  We started towards the trilling calls.  They seemed to be coming from a large vernal pool in the middle of a gas line cut in the woods.

As we drew near the pool, the music of toads became louder and louder.  I could not believe my eyes or ears!  I saw and heard more toads than I have ever seen any where!  The water was alive with toads.  Swimming toads.  Hopping toads.  Toads climbing on each other.

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Mating Ball o’ Toads

It was truly toadally amazing night.

Creature Feature – Spotted Salamander

Spotted Salamander

Ambystoma maculatum

Reptiles Alive Name:”Spot”spotted-salamander

Hissstory: Spot was donated to us by a nature center.

RA Diet: Spot eats earthworms, crickets, and meal worms.

Natural Diet: Adults eat worms, slugs, millipedes, termites, and other insects.  Larvae (tadpoles) eat aquatic insects including mosquito larva.

Range: Spotted salamanders are found in the eastern United States west to Texas and north to Canada.  They are native to the Washington DC area.

Habitat: Spotted salamanders live in hardwood forests where vernal pools form each year.

Size: They can grow to 4-7.75 inches, record length is 9.75 inches.

Lifespan: Spotted salamanders can live to 20 years.

Reproduction: Spotted salamanders emerge from hibernation in late winter and early spring.  They sometimes have to walk across snow to reach the vernal pools they breed in.   After mating in the water, the female salamanders lay egg masses of  consisting of around 100 eggs.  The eggs hatch depending on the temperature in the water.  Transformation (metamorphosis) takes places in 2 to 4 months.

Conservation: Acid rain can damage developing eggs, causing some populations to decline in certain areas.  Many salamanders are killed each year as they migrate over roadways in search of the vernal pools they were born in.  Spotted salamander populations in heavily urbanized areas have been mostly wiped out due to the destruction of the vernal pools they rely on for reproduction.

Cool Facts: Salamanders are an indicator species.  Amphibians need a clean and healthy habitat in order to survive.  Amphibians breathe through their skin, so toxins and pollution can easily kill them.  When salamanders disappear, it means something is wrong with the habitat they live in!   Salamanders can help scientists determine if an ecosystem is healthy or unhealthy.