Written By: Karlee May, Digital Media Coordinator
with contributions from Brenda Van Ryswyck, Natural Heritage Ecologist
Triggered by the warm spring rain, the Jefferson Salamanders erupt from their overwintering spots with an unstoppable urge to reach their vernal pools–only temporarily filled with cool water from the winter snow melt and spring rains. The seconds are ticking for this mysterious creature. During this fleeting time of year, the Jefferson salamanders, awakened by the rain, must travel from under rocks, over twigs, and leaves to reach their ponds in search of a mate.
The salamanders emerge from safe hiding places under the cover of night and hoist themselves over snow banks to a transient mating space. After mating, the Jefferson Salamanders meander back to their forest homes under leaf litter, rocks, and logs. They leave their eggs; the young are on their own to raise themselves to maturity.
Why are these creatures so singularly driven towards the vernal pools in a mad march to mate? Why does the season have such a profound effect on them? What do we know about these mysterious amphibians?
Little is fully known about the Jefferson Salamanders. No one has tracked the salamander through the full calendar year, and the Jefferson Salamanders are rare creatures. This species is only found in the North Eastern states, and in Canada, they can only be found in the province of Ontario. This enigmatic species is a mystery because there are so few, and rarely seen. The nocturnal creatures hide during the day, and then sneak through the night—out of sight of predators. After dark the Jefferson salamanders emerge from crevices and under stones to feast on insects and worms.
Our Ecologists completed extensive surveying and data collecting, and what we do know about Jefferson Salamanders is that the species is grey with blue-grey flecks on its side and on its legs. Adults reach between twelve and twenty centimetres in length. Half of the salamander’s length comes from its tail: its best defense against a predator. The Jefferson salamanders look slimy, but this is a misconception. Their skin is, in truth, cool and moist. The salamanders can die from drying out, and therefore, live under fallen logs, stumps, rocks and rodent burrows during the hot dry summer. Lastly, The Jefferson Salamander is a necessary link in the ecosystem; the Ontario Recovery Strategy Series says “the Jefferson Salamander plays an important role in channeling nutrients between the aquatic environment and the upland wooded environment and is an indicator species of high-quality vernal pools”.
If the salamanders have so many predators, why do they risk their lives and rush to a vernal pool in early spring? What is a vernal pool?
A vernal pool is a temporary wetland: it’s at its fullest in spring. Vernal derives from the Latin word vernalis, ‘of the spring’. When the snow melts and the spring rain falls, the water fills basins to form ponds. The vernal pools dry up in the summer, although some ponds do last longer, all vernal ponds will eventually dry up.
This dry cycle keeps them predator free so it benefits the salamanders. The pools dry up and therefore cannot contain fish, or other predators, to prey on the Jefferson Salamanders or eat its eggs. The eggs attach in clumps to fallen branches in the vernal pool, safe from harm. The Jefferson salamander adults can confidently leave their eggs in a vernal pool and return to the forest away from the summer sun.