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The Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum – Part II, Natural History

Spotted Salamander in terrarium

To read the first part of this article, click here.
Natural Diet
Adults consume a wide variety of prey – earthworms, millipedes, crickets, sow bugs, spiders, centipedes, termites and other invertebrates as well as smaller salamanders. The larvae prey upon zooplankton, dragonfly larvae and other aquatic insects, fairy shrimp, tadpoles, red-spotted newt larvae and each other.

Spotted salamanders produce toxic skin secretions but are none-the-less consumed by garter snakes and hog-nosed snakes. Introduced trout, bass, goldfish and other fishes prey upon the larvae and can decimate a population in a single season.

Adults migrate from terrestrial burrows to temporary ponds (vernal pools, swamps, ditches, sluggish streams) in the early spring. The migration is triggered by snow-melt or warm rains, with adults sometimes crossing snow to reach their breeding sites. Males arrive at the ponds 1-6 days before females. I have observed them breeding in Westchester County, NY in mid March, when the water is quite cold. Despite this, I found that food for the larvae, in the form of aquatic insects and fairy shrimp, was abundant.

Large mixed-sex groups form at the pond bottom during courtship. Males deposit a spermatophore (a sperm-filled, jelly-coated capsule) on the pond bottom. The females take this into their cloaca (reproductive opening) and fertilization occurs internally.

The eggs are laid in compact, jelly-covered masses that are attached to twigs, plants or sunken logs. Each mass contains 50-160 eggs. The sight of 20 or more large, brilliantly marked salamanders writhing together in as they vie for breeding rights is really something to see – please write in if you’d like information as to how you might observe this for yourself.

A species of green algae, Oophila amblystomatis, frequently colonizes the egg mass, apparently supplying oxygen to the embryos and utilizing the carbon dioxide that they produce. Larvae from algae-colonized egg masses hatch earlier and exhibit less mortality than do those from algae-free masses.

The adults return to their burrows after breeding. The terrestrial habitat may be 75 – 1,000 feet from the breeding pond.

The larvae hatch in 8-60 days, depending upon water temperature, and have external gills. Transformation to the adult form takes place over a period ranging from 6 weeks to 18 months. In NY, the larvae typically leave the breeding ponds by late July or August, after which the ponds usually dry up.

Adult spotted salamanders have lungs but rely largely upon cutaneous respiration (the absorption of oxygen through the skin). The skin must remain moist if this form of respiration is to be effective – they are therefore, limited to damp habitats and rarely appear above ground except after heavy rains. They and other salamanders depend upon protective tree cover, leaf litter and fallen logs to retain soil moisture, and rapidly disappear from degraded habitats.


You can read more about spotted salamander natural history and conservation at:
Of course, you can also order my salamander book from That Pet Place (see above) – Thanks!


Algae and Salamander Eggs – an odd partnership

Spring Peeper
Spring in the northeastern USA is prime time for amphibian watchers. Its arrival is most noticeably announced by frogs – first by spring peepers, Pseudacris crucifer and wood frogs, Rana (Lithobates) sylvaticus, with a succession of others following close behind. However, the season’s earliest greeters are silent. I have observed tiger salamanders Ambystoma tigrinum, move into breeding ponds during warm spells in late January (Long Island, NY).

Another amphibian that breeds in early spring is the strikingly marked spotted salamander, A. maculatum. Reaching 9 ¾ inches in length, these stout animals are jet black with yellow spots, and have been observed crossing snow during breeding migrations (I find them in ponds in southern NY in mid-March).

Amazingly, a species of green algae, Oophila amblystomatis, colonizes the spotteSpotted Salamanderd salamander’s globular egg masses. The algae most likely utilizes carbon dioxide and ammonia produced by the developing salamander embryos, and may in turn provide the embryos with oxygen (although the amount released is quite low). There is speculation that the algae may produce a growth factor that benefits the embryos, but more research is needed. In any event, experiments have shown that egg masses with this algae hatch faster, and with a higher survivorship, than do those lacking the algae. Conversely, algae growth slows markedly if the embryos are removed from the egg mass upon which it is established.

Spotted salamanders make interesting pets, and, while adapted to a burrowing lifestyle, adjust well to life above ground. Properly cared for, they can live for over 25 years. I will discuss them further in a future article.

More detailed information on this unique relationship is available at:

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