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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!


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

Spotted Salamander

Salamanders are not given nearly the attention they deserve by amphibian enthusiasts and, consequently, we know far less about their habits and care than we do of their more familiar relatives, the frogs. Many species, however, do very well in captivity and make long-lived (to over 50 years!) and responsive pets. A number are brilliantly colored, and all exhibit complex social behaviors and other traits that are easily observed in a properly designed captive habitat. I hope you will check out my book, Newts and Salamanders if you find these creatures as interesting as do I.

In contrast to frogs, salamanders reach their greatest diversity in temperate habitats – more species are found in the eastern USA than anywhere else on earth. Today I would like to take a look at the natural history of the spotted salamander – a large, local beauty that makes both an excellent “first salamander” and a fine addition to advanced collections. Next week I’ll cover their care in captivity.

Physical Description
Varies in length from 4 ¾ to 9 ¾ inches. Stoutly built, with a black or slate- colored body marked by irregular rows of brilliant yellow (occasionally orange) spots. Larvae are usually a uniform olive or brown in color with bushy red external gills.

Range and Habitat
Eastern and central North America – from Nova Scotia and central Ontario, Canada south to Georgia and west to eastern Iowa and eastern Texas. They are absent from southern NJ and the Delmarva Peninsula. Isolated populations are still to be found within NYC, on Staten Island and in Queens and the north Bronx.

Spotted salamanders favor deciduous lowland forests and meadows near forest edges and sometimes inhabit woodland patches within suburban areas. Adults require soil into which they can burrow and the fish-less bodies of water for breeding (the larvae are relatively defenseless against fish). Certain populations breed where fishes are present, but only if dense aquatic plant cover is available.

Spotted salamanders are members of the family Ambystomatidae – the mole salamanders. True to this name, the terrestrial adults spend most of their lives below logs or underground in self-excavated burrows or in those dug by mammals such as moles, shrews and field mice. They have been found at depths of 4 feet below ground, and generally forage on the surface only on damp or rainy nights. Spotted salamanders are sensitive to soil pH and avoid acidic soil.

Status in the Wild
Common in some parts of the range and drastically declining in others due to habitat loss – the removal of trees causes the soil to dry, and results in loss of the protective leaf-litter cover needed by this species. The introduction of trout and other game fish to breeding ponds quickly causes local extinctions.

Spotted salamanders typically breed in vernal (temporary) ponds, which are often small in size and only a few inches deep (these lack fish – see above). Unfortunately, such “puddles” are rarely recognized as worthy of protection, and hence are destroyed at a greater rate than are other habitats.

They are also threatened by acid rain and road-salting, both of which change soil and breeding pond pH, killing the larvae and driving off the adults. Protected by several states but not nationally, and not listed by CITES.

Check back on Friday for conclusion of this article.
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