Thursday, March 20, 2014

Herping: Salamanders

On Wednesday night, I traveled out to a patch of State Route 356 by the Waterloo Aquatic Education Center in Athens County with some fellow Ohio University wildlife-major undergrads and assorted graduate students to do some herping. What's herping? Well, it's like the word "birding;" herping, based on the word herpetology, is the act of going out and looking for reptiles and amphibians.

With the rain earlier in the day, and the warmer temperatures, the salamanders were bound to be out migrating to their breeding grounds. Typically, salamanders migrate in late winter or early spring when the ground is wet from rain and the temperatures are above 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Wednesday night was one such night. In this post, I will cover the salamander species we came across. The next post will be about the frogs/toads and extras we came across. EDIT: Part 2 can be found here!

Spotted Salamander Ohio
The first species we came across, and by far the most abundant of the night, was the Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum. A large mole salamander, Spotteds can be easily IDed by their two rows of yellow spots running down their body.

Spotted Salamander Ohio
Spotted Salamanders mainly live underground in the forest for most of the year, but during wet nights in spring they migrate to annual breeding ponds. After breeding, these salamanders return underground to live out the rest of the year. A long-living species, these have been known to reach 32 years old!

Jefferson Salamander, Ambystoma jeffersonianum
The second most abundant species of the night was the Jefferson Salamander, Ambystoma jeffersonianum. Another species of mole salamander, this species is slate-gray in color, and a tiny bit smaller than the Spotted Salamanders (but not by much). You can tell they are a lot more slender than a Spotted Salamander though. This individual was submerged in a marshy area along the road that was also home to hundreds of calling Spring Peepers.

Jefferson Salamander
Jefferson Salamanders, like Spotted Salamanders, spend most of the year underground, aside from when they migrate to their breeding ponds in the spring. The name is in honor of Jefferson College in Pennsylvania (I'm guessing someone from the college had a hand in discovering/naming it). In the photo above you can also see the head of one of the Spotted Salamanders checking out the Jefferson.

Red-Spotted subspecies, Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens
This guy is the Eastern Newt, specifically the Red-Spotted subspecies, Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens. We came across a handful, but they were no where near as abundant as the previous two salamanders. However, finding a newt is a good indicator as to the health of the area they're in. Newts have very permeable skin and are, as a result, very sensitive to toxins that make their way into environments. They're also very sensitive to pH changes in water, which Southeastern Ohio has a very large problem with due to acid-mine drainage, where acidic water from mines lowers the pH of creeks, rivers, and ponds to a level where many animals cannot live in them. So it is good news, at least for this immediate area, to find them.

Spotted Salamander road casualty
Now onto another, more gruesome, topic. This is a dead Spotted Salamander, one of the dozens we found along the road that were struck and killed by cars. Humans have really hurt salamander populations by building roads through migration routes. Salamanders typically use the same migration routes to the same vernal pools every year. We have built roads that have fragmented their habitat, forcing them to cross dangerous roads in order to breed. Many do not make it, like this one. Please, if it is a warm, wet night in early spring, watch out for salamanders and try to avoid hitting them if you see one on the road. Conservation of our native species begins with you.

Spotted Salamander Face
I hope you enjoyed the post! It was my first ever herping trip, and I will admit I am hooked. It's incredibly exciting to be walking through the dark down a forested road with only a headlamp and then come across one of these awesome guys plodding slowly along. As I mentioned earlier, there will be another post coming soon (sometime by Sunday for sure) covering the frog and toad species we came across, along with a few extra goodies. Edit: Part 2 over the frogs, toad, and more can be found here!

Thanks for reading!


  1. Did you go out last night? I went out to Waterloo around 5 am but only spotted a couple newts. Still cool, though.

    1. I haven't gone out in a few weeks, but I will be going out tonight (Feb. 28)!

    2. Great pictures. I am considering going to Hocking State Park this weekend and was wondering if you knew any god places/areas to look for salamanders? So, The place here (Cincinnati) hasn't seen any signs of eggs , but the nature guide said he saw a few males (spotted) out . It was at the Glenwood Garden park (vernal pool). What's your suggestion for this weekend after the heavy rains? Please feel fre to email me at Also, has anyone came across the rare Green Salamander>