by Tony Mills, The Lowcountry Institute

“So why are we walking down the road in the driving rain?” my son asked me. I explained to him that this was the night to look for amphibians. Although it was January, it was still a warm 65-70 degrees. I was delighted that I had convinced my two boys to accompany me on this inauspicious adventure. This was what life was all about. We were outside in the dark, we were wet and the frogs were calling. What more could one ask for.

The kids had just about had enough of this field trip when we saw the first one. It was a gorgeous female spotted salamander, ripe with eggs. The South Carolina State amphibian! She was obviously crossing the road to reach the wetland on the other side. Almost at once we saw two more and then several others. In fact, spotted salamanders were everywhere! Their bright yellow spotted patterns lit up the road as we illuminated them with our flashlights. Oh sure! Now the kids were interested!We carefully picked up the specimens placing them gently into the bins brought for this purpose. We would take them back to the lab to mark and measure and then release them the next day. If we were lucky we would see these same individuals next year. In all we collected about 50 or so spotted salamanders along with the usual complement of green frogs, southern toads and red salamanders. This was what we herpetologists call an awesome night out!

Spotted salamanders are seldom seen by people. They are occasionally uncovered during gardening work or other digging activities, but are most likely to be seen crossing roads on warm rainy nights in the winter. Like most of our amphibians, spotted salamanders live on land but lay their eggs in the surrounding wetlands. The eggs are laid in jellied clumps of a hundred or more and are usually attached to a stick or plant. They hatch in a few weeks into tiny larvae that resemble tadpoles, but with legs and external gills. These larvae grow quickly and metamorphose into small adults a few months later. These patternless, small adults are ready to start their lives as terrestrial animals in the woods nearby.In time they may reach 7-8 inches in length and develop the vivid yellow spots that give them their name. Spotted salamanders are eaten by snakes, birds, raccoons and other predators, but their biggest threat comes from the loss of habitat. They require particular wetlands to breed in. They prefer to lay their eggs in habitats without fish or other aquatic predators. Remember, not all wetlands are created equal! Without these temporary wetlands, spotted salamanders cannot breed effectively and their numbers will decrease.

The key to protecting much of our native wildlife is protecting the places where they live. The natural areas around where we live are loaded with life. The more we understand our local habitats, the better we can take care of them.