The small and secretive spotted salamander is a fascinating forest floor creature, and one of many wildlife species finding safe haven at the Coffin Wildlife Sanctuary in New Hampshire. These stout-bodied amphibians may be black, dark brown, or dark gray, with a light gray underside, and—as their name suggests—the adults have prominent spots. Arranged in two irregular rows, the spots are orange or yellow, warning would-be predators that the spotted salamander has a toxic defense. When they feel threatened a sticky white liquid is released through their skin, making them less palatable to predators, though still edible.
Spotted salamanders are found throughout most of the eastern United States and in adjacent parts of southern Canada. They live in temperate hardwood and mixed forests that have nearby swamps, fresh water ponds, or vernal pools, which they need for breeding. Tending to hide in leaf litter, under fallen wood, and in tunnels, spotted salamanders are most likely to be found only by those truly looking for them.
Threats to their safety and wellbeing
Spotted salamanders are not currently considered endangered or threatened, but timber harvesting, development, and increasing numbers of roads near breeding habitat put pressure on local populations. To keep spotted salamanders flourishing, we need to protect habitat and minimize forest fragmentation, particularly in woods with freshwater ponds or vernal pools. Another human-caused threat—acid rain—is harming their embryos.
Ninety percent of spotted salamander larvae die of natural causes before transforming into adults, usually as a result of a pond or vernal pool drying up, predation, or disease. Those surviving to adulthood typically live twenty years, and some live as long as thirty years. Among the creatures that eat spotted salamander eggs and hatchlings are adult newts, wood frog tadpoles, and crayfish. Fish, wading birds, other salamanders, and snakes also prey upon hatchlings, while turtles, snakes, skunks, and raccoons prey upon the adults.
How they spend their time
Spotted salamanders lay their eggs under water in winter or early spring. When the larvae hatch, they have feathery gills, two weak front legs, and a broad tail, so they can swim about to feed. After transforming into their juvenile form, they have lungs and four strong legs for getting around on land. By age two or three, they are ready to reproduce. After the last snow thaws, the first rain signals adults to make a nighttime migration to the same pond or vernal pool site from which they hatched, so they can mate. Even when another pond may be closer, their keen senses of smell and taste lure them back to their natal pond.
Otherwise, spotted salamanders move only as far as they must to find food and moist hiding places, often in existing burrows or crevices that they enlarge or modify. Their larvae eat insects, fairy shrimp, and eventually frog tadpoles and other salamander larvae, while adults eat earthworms, snails, slugs, millipedes, centipedes, spiders, various insects, and smaller salamanders. Their habit of consuming large numbers of mosquitoes makes them as beneficial to us as they are intriguing.