Environmental Information Series
Salamanders of New York
Salamanders, like frogs and toads, are amphibians. This means they lead "double lives" spending their early existence as aquatic larvae which undergo metamorphosis, transforming into land-based animals. These adults typically return to the water to breed. A hallmark of amphibians is a smooth skin thatmust be kept moist because it is permeable to water. Unlike frogs, salamanders keep their larval tail and slender bodies and move about by crawling rather than jumping.
Salamanders of Large Water Bodies
There are two species of large salamanders in New York, and both spend their entire lives in water. The mudpuppy, with its bright red gills, reaches lengths of 19 inches and is found in several large rivers and lakes around the state, including the Hudson, Mohawk and Salmon rivers and lakes Ontario and Oneida. Mudpuppies have been introduced into many other lakes by people using them as a fish bait.
An even larger species is the hellbender, a big fleshy salamander of river bottoms. In New York, only a few drainages along the southern border are home to hellbenders.
The Red-Spotted Newt
Red-spotted newts begin life as a small aquatic larva, residing in ponds and beaver flows. By late summer, they develop into a bright red or orange (and poisonous!) land dweller called the red eft and they remain this way for up to five years. This land stage is thought to be a dispersal period, where the efts seek out new ponds away from their parents. This appears to be a good strategy to take advantage of new ponds constantly being formed in a landscape altered by the work of beavers. Following the eft stage, the newt becomes sexually mature and re-enters the water, where they generally remain for the rest of their life. At this time, they take on a dark olive green coloration. Newts breed in early spring and may be observed in their elaborate courtship rituals in the shallows of forest lakes and ponds. Newt eggs are particularly sensitive to increased acidity and are absent from ponds affected by acid rain.
Mole Salamanders and Vernal Pools
The tiger, spotted, Jefferson's, blue-spotted, and marbled salamanders are the New York representatives of a family known as the mole salamanders, so-called because they spend most of their adult life underground, except for a brief early spring breeding period (marbled salamanders are fall breeders). They feed upon earthworms and other subterranean invertebrates. Tiger salamanders, as their name implies, typically possess yellow stripes on a brownish body while spotted salamanders have up to 50 yellow spots on a black body.Tiger salamanders are restricted to eastern
Long Island and are considered endangered in New York. Spotted salamanders are widespread across New York. Bluish flecks on the sides and legs of a black body characterize the Jefferson's and blue-spotted salamanders. These two are tough to distinguish as adults and, in fact, readily interbreed, creating unusual all-female hybrids. Marbled salamanders are found in the southeastern corner of New York and are recognized by white patches on a black body.
Vernal pools are small depressions in the landscape that fill with water for only part of a growing season, typically in the spring and early summer. These unique habitats are critically important for amphibians that need a place to lay their eggs free of aquatic predators like fish. The salamanders discussed above, as well as wood frogs and spring peepers, are especially linked to such mini-ecosystems. Preservation of these ephemeral water bodies, especially in private woodlots, is a major conservation goal.
Mole salamanders leave their winter retreats in early spring and migrate overland to the ponds of their birth. These brief congregations may be quite spectacular when hundreds of individuals arrive simultaneously at small ponds. Males court females underwater and if they are successful, deposit a small package of sperm called a sperm-atophore on the pool bottom. Females pick this up with the lips of their cloaca, the single opening beneath the tail, and fertilization takes place internally. Eggs are released in clusters of up to 200 and glued to underwater twigs or fallen branches. The eggs may soon take on a greenish hue, due to a kind of algae that lives in the jelly of the egg mass. In about six weeks, the eggs hatch and the salamanders exist as free-living larvae, feeding on tiny pond animals. Larvae usually metamorphose into adults by the end of summer or before the pond dries up, but some may overwinter as immatures.
The countless streams and creeks that course through New York are excellent places to search for a group of amphibians collectively called "streamside salamanders." In a good spot with the right combination of geography, flat rocks, clear water and a protective tree canopy, four or five species in this group may be found. While all deposit their eggs in the water and spend the first part of their life there as gill-breathing animals, adult mountain dusky salamanders may venture quite far from the stream bank. On rainy evenings it may even be found in the foliage of ferns and shrubs searching for invertebrate prey. A close relative, the northern dusky salamander, rarely strays farther than a few yards from the flowing brook, and typically is found right at the water's edge. Telling the two apart is very difficult. Adults of both species possess a pale line from the corner of the eye to the angle of the jaw. The mountain dusky has a more rounded tail and the northern dusky has a keeled tail. The very slender two-lined salamander, recognized by its bright yellow underside, tolerates a wider variety of ecological conditions. In moist woodlands following rains, they may wander many yards from the creek edge.
Attempts to capture these creatures from under rocks can prove frustrating owing to their speed and wriggling movements. The spring salamander attains the greatest size and bulk of the streamside salamanders, reaching lengths of 7-1/2 inches not including the long tail. Like the other streamside salamanders, it breathes entirely through its skin and must remain moist. As a consequence, spring salamanders rarely venture far from running water. In eastern and southern portions of the state, red and longtail salamanders also occur.
Small Woodland Salamanders
Sometimes it seems that every other log or rock on the forest floor harbors a redback salamander. These small (up to four inches minus the tail) creatures come in two color varieties. Most common is the typical red-backed form with the prominent red stripe on the back from head to tail bordered by dark sides. The lead-backed form lacks this stripe. Both have a distinct salt-and-pepper mottling on the belly. Like other salamanders in its family, it lacks lungs and breathes through it skin and must remain in moist places. During dry spells it moves deeper into the soil and leaf litter. Redbacks lay their eggs on land and metamorphose from the larvae to the adults directly in the egg, freeing them of the aquatic existence that other amphibians require.
Other woodland lungless salamanders include the slimy salamander, known by its white-flecked black body, large size (six inches) and the copious amounts of sticky mucous it produces when handled. The mucous is believed to be an effective defense against predators like snakes. Four-toed salamanders are a small species associated with woodland bogs while Wehrle's salamanders barely enter the state along the Pennsylvania border.
Checklist of Salamander Species Found Within New York
- Eastern Hellbender (Special Concern)
- Marbled Salamander
- Jefferson Salamander (Special Concern)
- Blue-spotted Salamander (Special Concern)
- Jefferson Salamander Complex (Hybrid)
- Spotted Salamander (Special Concern)
- Eastern Tiger Salamander (Endangered)
- Red-spotted Newt
- Northern Dusky Salamander
- Mountain Dusky Salamander
- Redback Salamander
- Northern Slimy Salamander
- Wehrle's Salamander
- Four-toed Salamander
- Northern Spring Salamander
- Northern Red Salamander
- Northern Two-lined Salamander
- Longtail Salamander
Conant, Roger and Joseph T. Collins. 1991. A field guide to reptiles and amphibians: eastern and central North America. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA. 450 p.
For Natural History:
Tyning, Thomas F. 1990. A guide to amphibians and reptiles: a Stokes nature guide. Little, Brown and Co., Boston. 400 p.
Written by Dawn Ford and Glenn Johnson, Environmental and Forest Biology, SUNY-ESF. Illustrated by Melinda Gray Ardia and Liza Corbett