Goose Pond was mostly ice free on Tuesday, March 9th when Mark found the first tiger salamander of the year!
The salamander was found in the Bicentennial Prairie heading for Goose Pond. Mark was working with Maddie, our Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward, and volunteers. Always game for a riddle, Mark asked the volunteers if they could guess what animal he had in his pocket. The hint was that this species probably has the most biomass of any animal in the Goose Pond prairies! After a few rounds of guessing, Mark showed the volunteers the salamander. Adult tigers weigh about 4 ounces. One study in a Michigan forest found that red backed salamanders could reach over 3,600 per acre; the abundance of eastern tiger salamanders near Goose Pond is high, though we certainly don't know the total biomass of the species. It's pretty sound to guess that this species does indeed make up more biomass than any other vertebrate on the prairie!
Salamanders are one of the oldest types of amphibians and many experts believe that the tiger salamander has gone through very few changes over millions of years.
Tiger salamanders have a black body and yellow stripes or blotches of the length of the body. They can reach 14 inches in length, however, most we see are in the 7-8 inch range. They have sturdy legs and a long tail, all of which are able to regrow should these limbs become lost or damaged.
Adult salamanders live below ground in burrows, especially thirteen-lined ground squirrel burrows. They head to the pond to breed as soon as the pond becomes ice free. After breeding the adults head back to the uplands. A warm rain helps begin the movement to the pond and many salamanders move at night. We thought that all adults moved to the pond to breed and were surprised to learn that scientists believe that most individual will only get the chance to breed just once in their up to 15 years lifetime.
Since fish can prey heavily on salamanders eggs they do the best in shallow prairie wetland that do not contain fish. Visitors are surprised to learn that the most productive prairie wetlands for salamanders and ducklings do not contain fish. In the water, salamanders are easy prey for herons and egrets. One study in a North Dakota prairie wetland found over 2,000 tiger salamanders per acre of water! The young are entirely aquatic and have large external, feathery gills and a caudal fin that they lose just before they head out of the water in August and become adults. These feathery gills are the reason we've included salamanders as a Friday "Feathery" Feature!
In some years, we see hundreds of salamanders moving across the roads or in our lawn in August after a warm rain. Vehicles are a big source of mortality when they move across the road. Opossums, raccoons, mink and crows like to feed on road kills.
While in their burrows salamanders feed on insects and worms, however they can also emerge at night to feed. They have been known to feed on baby mice.
Next time you visit Goose Pond look for these rarely seen but very abundant creatures. It would be interesting to know the number of salamanders at Goose Pond.
By Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Resident Managers, Goose Pond Sanctuary