There’s something slimy crawling around these parts at night. Something with beady little eyes and a long, smooth tail, and it’s creeping through the forest on four stubby legs. It breathes through its skin, lays eggs, and secretes toxins from its skin. That’s right – it’s almost salamander season in Ontario!
Salamanders are very secretive – not everyone knows these delightful critters live in Ontario. Looking like something halfway between a frog and a snake, salamanders are amphibians, which means they spend part of their lives both in water and on land. They are closely related to frogs, and even have a life stage similar to tadpoles, with gills and a big tail fin. They may seem sort of creepy, and are certainly crawly, but there’s no need to be afraid of salamanders! They live fascinating lives and are very sensitive creatures.
One of salamanders’ defining features is their skin. For salamanders, skin isn’t just something that covers the outside of their body, but also a tool for self-defence, healing, and breathing! Salamander skin is veeeery delicate and needs to always be damp, so they secrete a sticky mucus. This mucus contains a bunch of chemicals – including toxins that are irritating to animals that try to eat it! Any hungry raccoon or bullfrog trying to eat a salamander will be in for a surprise, dropping the salamander upon tasting their unpleasant secretions and giving it a chance to escape. The mucus also contains healing chemicals and germs that prevent diseases from entering through the salamander’s skin.
Another important use of salamander skin is that it helps them breathe! Most salamanders only have one lung, and they spend a lot of time in the water, so they use their skin to take in oxygen from the air and water. It’s like having a two-in-one lung and gill! If you ever pick up a salamander to help it across the road, remember just how delicate and important its skin is!
This incredible skin is also one of salamanders’ greatest weaknesses. It’s so thin that it’s easily damaged, and it can easily be hurt by harmful chemicals and germs.
The Salamander Migration
Salamanders have life cycles very similar to frogs. They hatch out of soft eggs as tadpole-like creatures, with frilly gills and a big tailfin to help them live underwater until they grow up. When these squishy little babies mature into adults, they partake in a challenging migration that comes with the change of seasons.
During the cold months, many salamanders cosy up in old burrows made by small mammals like mice or chipmunks. Come spring, they take a great journey, often trekking several hundred metres to a breeding wetland. A breeding wetland is a small, forested pond where salamanders can lay their eggs in safe waters.
In the fall, they make the same journey in reverse, travelling from their wetland to a burrow where they can stay warm for the winter. Since salamanders need to always stay damp, they tend to travel only at night, when sunlight can’t evaporate all the moisture away and dry them up.
This migration, usually spanning under a kilometre, may seem very quick and simple to large mammals like you and I, but for a tiny and delicate salamander, this trek can be a matter of life and death. The salamander migration path can cross roads and parking lots, which can be very dangerous! This fall, if you find yourself on the roads at night, keep an eye out for salamanders on the ground, and consider giving them a helping hand across the street.
Get to know your slimy neighbours!
Here are some of the salamander species you may encounter in the Georgian Bay region:
The red-backed salamander is usually very easy to identify based on, well, its red back! This salamander has a red racing stripe running from head to tail, which can range from a vibrant red to a faint pink. The red-backed salamander comes from a family known as “lungless salamanders,” because – you guessed it – they don’t have lungs! Instead of inhaling and exhaling like we do, they absorb oxygen through their skin and through their mouths.
The blue-spotted salamander can be identified by the blue speckles along its sides, which are often faint and hard-to-spot! They are from a group known as “mole salamanders” and they spend most of their lives living underground in burrows left by other animals or in ones they dig themselves.
Yellow Spotted salamander
The spotted salamander is one of the easiest salamanders to spot! It has rows of bright yellow polka-dots all along its back. Combined with its protruding eyes, this makes the spotted salamander a very goofy-looking animal. Spotted salamanders are also mole salamanders, and spend a lot of their adult lives underground.
This salamander is speckly and brown with a pale underbelly, and often has orange around its head and tail, making it difficult to see among the fallen leaves. It is also the only salamander with four toes on both its front and back feet. This salamander has an intense way of defending itself against predators – if a hungry animal tries to swallow this salamander up, the four-toed salamander can drop its tail and make a quick escape! The severed tail will cause a distraction by wriggling around, and the salamander can then regrow a new tail over time.
The mudpuppy is a fully aquatic salamander, and is so special we wrote it its own blog! Read through it to find out how they can live underwater!
Some people live or visit in Georgian Bay for years without seeing a single salamander! There are many, many salamanders out there, you just have to know when and where to look.
Salamanders eat mostly invertebrates like flies and beetles, which live on leaves on the ground. Although they typically hide under rocks during the day and hunt at night, some will boldly rest out in the open making them easy to find. Let’s look for salamanders!
During the day…
For your daytime Salamander Search, you’ll need to look where they sleep. Slowly and carefully lift logs and medium sized rocks to see if there is a salamander below. Be prepared to see other creatures also calling that place home! Always put the rock or log carefully back into place and the salamander beside it so it can crawl back underneath. Never put a log or rock back on top of any animal.
The best nights to find salamanders are rainy, warm, and humid. Searching near wetlands can help improve your odds. If safe to do so, looking on paved surfaces will reveal lots of amphibians at night. You’ll need a flashlight and brightly coloured clothes to see and be seen!
Important! There are only two times to pick up an amphibian. The first, when moving a creature to place beside the rock or log you found it under. The second is off a road. Otherwise, remember amphibians are very sensitive to humans’ touch. They also don’t like loud noises. Keeping quiet, moving carefully and slowly will help you see more salamanders!