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Mystery of the Very Early Salamander

A spotted salamander in Lake Placid, February 2013. By Karen Davidson

We are hard-wired to notice things in places they usually aren’t. Karen Davidson was walking behind her home on Averyville Road, in Lake Placid, mid-afternoon on February 27 when she saw something dark atop the snow.

A chunky black salamander with yellow spots interrupted the white. “He was trucking along in front of the gate to the cabin when our paths intersected,” Davidson says.

She posted a photo to Facebook, and the out-of-season spotted salamander became a subject of speculation. So I emailed Glenn Johnson, a professor in the biology department at SUNY Potsdam and expert on amphibians and reptiles.

“Typically, spotted salamanders begin their move from overwintering areas (down in mole, shrew or rodent burrows) to their breeding ponds in mid-March in New York, generally at night after the first warm spring rain, but individuals do not always do what the textbooks say,” Johnson replied.

When he considered the particulars (winter was still going strong, and the temperature over the previous 24 hours had risen no higher than about 36°, according to Weather Underground), he found the Lake Placid case curiouser and curiouser.

“About 41°F is the lower limit given in the literature to trigger activity in this beast, but …,” he wrote. “Many spotted salamanders will overwinter in house foundations and may respond earlier than those overwintering away from the heat islands that houses can be.” This one was 15 feet from an unheated outbuilding. Noticing iron-oxide debris on the salamander’s tail, Davidson thought it might have emerged from the vicinity of a spring-fed stream on the property, so she placed the animal near it. When she checked later in the day, it was gone.

In the higher elevations of the Adirondacks, spring migration of salamanders, frogs and toads usually gets rolling around tax time. The Adirondack All Taxa Biological Inventory encourages locals to go out on rainy nights to look for the creatures and to record their sightings. The more people counting, the more we know.

There are 14 species of frogs and toads and 18 salamanders in New York State; several of these are in decline. Because their reproduction is associated with ephemeral pools, many amphibians are vulnerable to changes in precipitation patterns. Johnson forwarded a paper published yesterday in the journal Biology that explores risks related to a rapidly changing climate.

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